Northern Sicilian Highlights

On a recent backpacking trip to Italy with one of my best friends, we couldn’t resist squeezing in a quick visit to Northern Sicily. Five days there wasn’t quite enough, but it was all we had, so we managed to pack a lot in, given the short time! It was a fast-paced trip, but what a whirlwind of amazing sights, food and fun! After five action-packed days in Northern Sicily, I was able to make the following list of the must see sights and activities in the area.

PalermoPalermo

We first arrived in Palermo by boat from Sorrento, early in the morning on a public holiday, so the city was a bit of a ghost town! Later on in the evening, however, and on the following day, things livened up a lot as locals and tourists hit the streets. Even though Palermo isn’t the most attractive city at first glance, it’s charm reveals itself after spending some time wandering the streets. Make sure to go and see Quattro Canti (junction where the city’s four main districts meet), Palermo’s cathedral and Palazzo Reale.

If you have a sweet tooth, then make sure to make a pit stop at Touring Cafe and try a cannoli! They have such an array of amazing local deserts to choose from, and decorative and stylish décor is something to enjoy. Also don’t forget to try to try the local classic savoury dish, arancine. The most popular place to get these, with the best selection, is Ke Palle Arancine. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see a swarm of tourists outside. You’ll find arancine in all sorts of cafes and take-away stores, however, which are just as good and even cheaper.

CefaluCefalu

This gem of a city is worth heading off the beaten track to reach! If you don’t have time to spend a night or two in Cefalu, it’s even worth it to make a day-trip to admire this beautiful city. The beach features extensive golden sand, and the old town is a façade of beige buildings with terracotta roofs.

We were based in Palermo, and ventured over to Cefalu for the day. It’s easily reachable from Palermo by train, with direct connections running often and taking less than an hour. From the train station, reaching the old town of Cefalu and its stunning beach is easy by foot.

This is a place to enjoy basking in the sun on the golden sand beach, sipping cocktails at one of the beach bars, and wandering through the old city by foot. With such a stunning view of the old city from the beach, this is where we chose to spend the bulk of our time! The sea is also invitingly warm and good for swimming in.

Catania

Catania, like Palermo, isn’t one of the most stunning cities from the outside. But spend a little time wandering the streets, and you will find it grows on you. Hop-on hop-off tour buses are available to take you to all of Catania’s popular sites, or wander around the city by foot (if you’re feeling energetic). Make sure to check out the main sights, including Palazzo degli Elefanti, the main Piazza outside of the palace, and Castello Ursino.

If you’re looking for some nightlife, A putia dell’Ostello is where it’s at. This outdoor bar is packed, even on a Monday night, probably because it is located right under Catania’s popular Agora hostel. Enjoy the buzz and a few drinks outside in summer, and make sure to check out the underground river, which literally runs through the basement of the bar inside!

Etna Mt Etna

This volcano, which towers above the clouds at over 3,000m high, is worth a visit! There are a whole bunch of tours which offer trips up to Mount Etna, departing from Catania or Taormina at various times. Each promise to show you various features of the volcano, some taking you up higher than others.

If you’re on a budget, however, I would recommend making a trip up to the mountain via public transport. There is a bus which leaves near Catania train station around 8am and drives you back down again at around 4.30pm. There are only a limited number of tickets available, however, as the bus has limited seats, so make sure you get there early.

The bus will take you to up to the main base up the volcano. Don’t take a nap on the bus ride up, because you’ll get to see spectacular views, and the remains of some old buildings which have been destroyed during previous eruptions. There are some pretty decent craters around the main base, so make sure you check these out! From this point, you can either choose to be taken up further by gondola, go up via jeep, or, if you’re feeling energised (like we were), you can walk up further yourself! There is a formed road which is easy to follow, or choose to scale the side of the mountain for a more action-packed route. Views up the top on a nice day are amazing!

Taormina

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We chose to visit Taormina as a day trip from Catania, but I would highly recommend spending some more time here if you can. This hilltop city is an oasis with stunning views out over the ocean and a beautiful old town. The long main street is full of cute shops and restaurants, so it’s worth taking your time to wander up and down the street here. We had lunch at a cute little restaurant at the end of Vico Zecca, just off the main street, which is definitely worth checking out for a great dish of pasta.

Make sure to take the cable car back down the hill to check out the gorgeous beaches too, Isola Bella and Lido la Pigna, something we didn’t manage to do as it started pouring with rain!

New Zealand’s greatest walks: Tongariro Crossing

This stunning hike is on the to-do lists of many visitors to New Zealand for a reason! I have completed the hike three times myself, and would gladly do it again. With diverse scenery, unbeatable views and the chance to walk across the craters of volcanoes, this hike has it all.

Located in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island, the Tongariro crossing is a perfect activity to add to your North Island road trip. Whilst a basic level of fitness is required, you don’t need to be an experienced climber or hiker to achieve this walk. Just make sure you have the right equipment, and make sure someone else knows when you will be doing the crossing.

What to bring

It’s important to remember that the weather conditions on this hike can change very rapidly. While it may be warm at the beginning, once you reach the top, it’s very exposed and wind chill is high. Because of this, make sure to pack many layers of warm and weather protective clothing. Here is a basic list of essential items to pack:

  • DSCN2275Clothes: Waterproof jacket, thermal top, sports Tshirt, polar fleece or warm jumper, long pants, shorts (can be worn underneath), thick, comfy socks, gloves, hat and scarf
  • Hiking boots (or walking shoes with good grip)
  • Food: Lunch, energy snack (like nuts and chocolate) and a big water bottle (you can’t fill this up on the way)
  • Other things: Sunscreen, first aid, tissues/toilet paper and cellphone

If you don’t have room in your suitcase or backpack to bring all the appropriate gear with you, some items may be rented in towns surrounding the mountain, including National Park and Turangi, one of which you’ll probably spend the night in before (and after).

Where to stay

National Park and Turangi are both great towns to base yourself in, with plenty of accommodation options available for various budgets.

For my first crossing, I stayed at National Park Backpackers, which isn’t flash, but it’s clean, tidy and has everything you need. A shuttle service is offered, which takes you to the mountain in the morning, and brings you back again after the hike. Information is also provided there on the hike and other nearby activities, and gear rental is possible. The communal area is large and a great place to meet people, and check out the indoor spa pool to soak your sore muscles in after the hike!

Getting there

Mount Tongariro is located in the middle of the North island. Nearby towns including National Park and Turangi are reachable by bus from all major hubs, including Wellington, Auckland, Hamilton and Taupo, with services running daily. Check out intercity.co.nz or nakedbus.com for more information.

Distance: Wellington 340km, Auckland 343km, Hamilton 236km, Taupo 104km.

Getting to and from the hike itself

It is possible to drive to the start of the crossing, but for logistical reasons, I would recommend booking a shuttle to take you to the start and pick you up again at the finish. This is because the hike starts and finishes in two different places, 23km away from one another. There are heaps of shuttle services available, which you can book directly through most accommodation sites. If in doubt, head to National Park Backpackers on the evening before the hike to reserve a seat in one of their shuttles. They have plenty available, and you can park your car there for the day.

DSCN0001_2Doing the hike    

The first part of the hike is pretty cruisey, following a well formed path with no major hills, to get you warmed up. It’s good to make use of the toilets at the end of this stretch, as you won’t find any more until near the end!

After this, the real ascent begins. This first part of the ascent is known as the devils staircase – you’ll see why when you do it! This set of stairs seems never-ending, so take your time going up, stopping occasionally to soak in the view. After this, you’ll cross the first crater, with terrain which makes you feel like you’re walking on the moon! A clamber up a steep, rocky stretch follows, taking you basically to the summit of Mount Tongariro.

Tip: If you have a little extra energy, take the detour to the actual summit of Mount Tongariro (check out the picture at the top of the page). This takes an extra hour, and the views from the summit are impressive!

DSCN2292After the summit comes an awkward kind of shuffle down a steep and ashy stretch, where you’ll be greeted by the stunning emerald lakes at the bottom. Crossing over the next crater then takes you to the blue lake, a great place to stop for lunch. Following the blue lake is a long and winding descent back down the other side of the mountain, which is partnered with attractive views across lake Rotoaira, making those tired legs totally worth it.

The very last stretch is a bit of a drag, I’m not going to lie! After winding your way through a seemingly never-ending stretch of forest, you’ll find yourself at the car park at the other end. Now you can give yourself a pat on the back!

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The Amalfi Coast

This spectacular coastline has to be one of the most beautiful you’ll ever see! It’s everything you could possibly imagine when picturing a typical Italian coast – an abundance of colour as the sun reflects off the tiers of brightly painted houses, and the sea sparkling below you as your drive along the windy coastal road. This Italian gem of a region is packed in summer, and it’s easy to see why!

How to get there

We took the bus along the coastline from Sorrento, which runs regularly from the town centre and takes around 1hour to Positano, and 1hour 40mins to Amalfi. Although this might sound long, the minutes fly by on this bus journey as you take in the impressive views. Just make sure to sit on the right side of the bus, so you can get the best photos! Alternatively, the coast can be accessed directly via bus from Salerno.

IMG_3289What to do

The Amalfi Coast is a place to kick back and relax, and soak up the sun! Enjoy sipping cocktails and lying on the beach while taking in the magnificent views of the sea and the colourful houses. When your feet get itchy, jump on a bus and hop between the towns, appreciating the endless and individual beauty of each!

Where to stay

Prices are fairly steep in summertime, so make sure to book in advance. My friend and I were traveling on a serious budget so we opted to stay in Sorrento, where prices were more reasonable, and venture over to Amalfi for a day trip. My advice though – pay a little extra and base yourself either in Amalfi or Positano, it’s an investment worth making. In saying this, we thoroughly enjoyed the scenic bus ride along the coast and back, so staying in Sorrento is a great option too. If you do this, I would highly recommend Seven Hostel, for it’s clean rooms, decent breakfast and amaaaazing rooftop terrace!

What to eat

The Amalfi Coast is full of 11931712_10154106256307662_1647767441_n (1)restaurants and trattorias offering local dishes with fresh ingredients and seafood. We found it hard to tear ourselves away from the beach, so when it came to dinnertime, we opted for some fresh fish and chips, which we could take away and eat back at the beach (surprise surprise). This was washed down nicely with some limoncello and limoncello chocolate (because we couldn’t get enough of the stuff!).

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Climbing Mt Kinabalu (on a budget)

If you’re heading to Borneo, then climbing Mt Kinabalu is a must! You don’t need to be a skilled hiker or mountaineer to achieve this climb – just determined, equipped and ready for an adventure.

Booking the climb

You can book the climb through tour agencies, but the cheapest way to secure a spot is actually to book directly through the park and accommodation service itself. If you opt for this, you will need to do the following things:

  • Contact Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, to reserve a bed for one night. You will need to spend the night at Laban Rata. They provide you with a packed lunch, dinner, pre-summit snack, post-summit breakfast and lunch at the bottom (RM 540.00).
  • Purchase a climbing permit + insurance. This can also be done through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, when you book your overnight stay (RM 107.00).
  • Pay an entrance fee to get into the park. This can be done on arrival. You will need to pay for two days (RM 15.00).
  • Pick up and pay for a guide. This is compulsory, and can be done at the base of the mountain, before you start. You don’t need to organise this in advance (roughly RM 50.00 each, depending on how many you are in a group. A guide to yourself costs RM 143.00).

Total cost: RM 712.00 (other agencies will charge up to RM 2,000.00, excluding guide fees).

What to bring

Hiking boots are ideal, but if you are like me and don’t want to carry heavy boots with you because you aren’t planning to do all that many hikes, then don’t worry. I actually did the climb in regular trainers, because the track is clear and well formed, and not too slippery. Just be careful if this is the case though. The other inexpensive option is to grab a pair of “kampung Adidas”, which are basically like studded trainers made entirely out of plastic, a favourite amongst locals who regularly climb the mountain!

Bring loads of warm clothes, because it can be ice cold at the summit before the sun comes up. Extra snacks for the road also go down well. Take a camera, of course! There are showers there to use, but I would advise against bringing a towel and excessive toiletries, because you want your backpack to be as light as possible. And everyone stinks, you won’t be the odd one out. Bring a torch (or even better, a head torch), otherwise summiting before sunrise is an impossible task. Also recommended is a waterproof jacket, first aid supplies, a large drink bottle, spare socks and sunscreen.

DSCN0616 (1)Day 1

Arrive nice and early at the park, where you will pay your park entrance fee, and deposit your backpack or suitcase at the base. Here you can arrange for a guide to accompany you to the top. As a solo traveler, I didn’t want to have a guide completely to myself, so I kept my eyes peeled for other (solo) travelers to share a guide with. A lovely young couple actually approached me first, so we split the guide fee and did hike together. They were the loveliest people, we had a similar pace, and it was great to have other companions to share the adventure with!

When you’re all ready to go, you’ll want to grab a taxi to take you to the start of the hike. This only requires a small fee, and will save you a lot of time and energy. You will then have to present your climbing permit at the base, and off you go!

The hike up on the first day is hard work – although the distance isn’t too long, it’s a steep climb. Take your time though, there’s no need to race up to the top. Once you’re there, there’s not a lot to do anyway. After a buffet dinner and watching the sunset, I headed to bed pretty early to get some rest before our 2am wake up to make the final ascent.

DSCN0624 (1)Day 2

After tossing and turning all night (well, half a night), 2am came around way too fast for me! The excitement of making the ascent gives you enough energy to get up and going though. After a quick supper, the climb continues with your guide. This is where the head torch or torch comes in extremely useful. The climb gets a lot steeper, but there are ropes in place for assistance where needed.

Like the previous day, don’t race up to the summit, because it’s an unenjoyably freezing cold wait up the top for the sun to rise. Your guide will make sure you get there in time, so don’t panic. We made the mistake of going up too fast, and it was freeeezing!

It becomes clear pretty quickly that all that energy was worth it however when the sun starts to rise! This is honestly one of the most spectacular views that I’ve ever encountered – sitting above the clouds, with the green forest peeking through from below. Soo worth it!

The descent is nice and cruisey, but try and stay focused on the path. If you loose concentration, accidents can happen. Making it down to the bottom is a relief, and the lunch provided at the end is such a nice reward! My tour group and I treated our selves to a (seriously painful) Malaysian massage back in Kota Kinabalu afterwards, and a nice meal. After that, you will sleep like a stone, I swear!

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Exploring Algarve’s beaches

Portugal’s Algarve region is a popular travel destination for a reason. This stunning region basks in sun nearly all year round, and its magnificent coastline features hundreds of golden sand beaches and dramatic cliffs. If you love sun and sea, you won’t be disappointed!

The Algarve is a sizeable region, so you won’t get to cover all ground in one visit. The best thing to do is to base yourself in one town (for us, this was Lagos), and do day trips from there. This saves the hassle of having to pack up and move all the time, and there are honestly so many beautiful beaches scattered along the coastline, so you won’t get bored.

What you need:

A car, sunscreen, and a sense of adventure!

If it’s not possible to rent a car, then there are plenty of beautiful beaches in walking distance from most towns, so you won’t miss out. If you want total freedom, however, I would recommend hiring a car, at least for a day, to get out of the city and reach some of the more remote beaches.

IMG_3589Praia da Figueira (Western Algarve)

This secluded gem of a beach is at the top of my list for a reason! We followed our noses to get here, and what a find. Praia da Figueira is just a short drive off the main highway (heading towards Sagres, from Lagos) down a windy road. The beach itself isn’t that large, particularly when the tide comes in, but it’s secluded and relatively private. The further you wander down the beach, the less people you’ll find, and there are some pleasant secluded spots between formations of fallen rock.

Praia da MarinhaPraia da Marinha (Central Algarve)

Praia da Marinha is one of the more popular Algarve beaches to visit. After doing some online research and reading reviews, I decided that this was a beach worth visiting! At first glance, it’s easy to see why this spot is so popular. The cliffs are dramatic, the beach is like something out of a movie, and the views looking down on the beaches from above are amazing. I, like several others, had a lot of fun here climbing over the rocks and searching out hidden caves and secret spots!

The only thing to be wary of at this beach, however, is the seaweed. There is a lot, so it’s not the most ideal place to swim.

Praia da MaretaPraia da Mareta (Western Algarve)

This stunning beach in the far west of the Algarve is also worth a visit. It features picture perfect views looking down at the beach from the cliffs above (cue to check out the photo), as well as an expanse of soft, golden sand. Space here isn’t an issue. We didn’t spend much time on the beach, however, because we were both feeling pretty sunned out and parched at this point! Instead, we decided to recover and chill out in a cute little bar overlooking the beach called Chiringuito Last Chance, which served cold cocktails and tasty tapas.

Praia da LuzPraia da Luz (Western Algarve)

Praia da Luz features a beautiful stretch of sand with some pretty cool pancake type rock formations to wander across and sunbathe on. This is one of the few beaches where I actually fully submerged, but it was for less than 60 seconds because the water was so cold (and I’m not a wimp!). There are some reasonably priced sunbeds available to rent, and nice cafes, bars and restaurants near the beach when you need a refreshment.

So there you go!

I feel like I need to reiterate though, if you don’t have access to a car, don’t despair! There are so many beautiful spots closer to main towns too. Praia do Ana and Praia dos Estudantes, for example, are two jaw-droppingly beautiful beaches, both within walking distance of Lagos city.

I hope you enjoy these suggestions, and don’t forget to have an adventure and discover your own secret Algarve beaches too.

Mertola: Portugal’s hidden secret

When my partner and I recently decided to go on a two-week trip to Portugal, visiting a remote Portuguese town was at the top of my list! Going off the beaten track lead us to discovering Mertola, a hidden Portuguese gem. This slice of paradise is free of swarms of tourists, quiet and peaceful, and food and accommodation is incredibly cheap. My only regret about our visit – not staying long enough!

Getting there

You’ll need a car and a GPS (or pretty good directions) to reach Mertola. We picked up a car late morning in Lisbon, and opted for the slightly longer 260km route via Evora, a great little city to make a lunchtime stop in. After lunch and a stroll in Evora, we continued on the road to Mertola at a cruisey pace, making it there by 4pm. Mertola really isn’t on the way to anything, so you’ll have to make a detour to get there. This is part of the beauty of Mertola, however, as not many people go out of their way to reach it!

Distance:

Lisbon 235km, Faro 118km, Lagos 172km, Evora 132km

Where to stay

FullSizeRender_1 copyMertola is full of beautiful, quaint and reasonably priced guesthouses. We checked into Quinta do Vau, a gorgeous guesthouse with welcoming and friendly staff, located on the outskirts of the city. The rooms are clean, modern and tidy, and most of them feature an incredible view over the old town and castle. So magical, especially at night!

FullSizeRender(1)What to do

The best thing to do in Mertola? Just to BE. Mertola is so quiet and slow that it really is an ideal place to just enjoy a book, the company of your travel companion, or simply do nothing!

My first move when we arrived was to cool off in the pool at our accommodation, and bask in the late afternoon sun while enjoying the view of the city. I could have done this for days, honestly. But, with less than 24 hours in Mertola, we wanted to get out and explore the city as well.

Before sunset, we headed to the city for a wander. The cobblestone streets are narrow and charming, and the white painted walls make this city such a romantic place to wander around. Located in the centre of the city, at the highest point, you’ll find the old castle, which is also worth a visit.

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Where to eat

I would recommend looking for somewhere to eat fairly early in the night, as there isn’t a huge choice, and things seem to close early. We thought we were out of luck in terms of food, until we wandered down an alleyway on the city’s edge and came across Terra Utópica, a cute little restaurant with a rooftop terrace and tables overlooking the river. The food was divine, and such good value for money! This was honestly one of the best meals I had in Portugal.

We were also served breakfast at the guesthouse the next morning. Such a treat! They really went out of their way to prepare a delicious breakfast for guests, with a variety of food from yoghurt to fruit salad, coffee, juice, tea, fresh bread and any topping imaginable.

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Mertola, sigh, such a slice of heaven!