The best hot chocolate ever was not a thick concoction of rich, creamy liquid. In fact, it tasted fairly average. What made this the best hot chocolate ever were the circumstances in which it was enjoyed.
City of lakes, mountains, and chocolate
Bariloche is blessed with a large lake at its feet and the awesome Andes at its back. Patagonia stretches for many miles south, with coaches and sleeper trains connecting the city to the coast or to adventure-filled destinations such as Esquel and El Calafate. You can even take a boat (and then a bus, boat, bus, boat, then yet one more bus) to Puerto Varas in Chile.
This Argentine gem is a chocoholic’s dream, with top-quality chocolate shops lining the high street. With so much choice, my favourite had to be Rapa Nui, which even has a very chocolatey café with an ice rink in the middle.
But the best hot choc is harder to find…
Been to Buenos Aires? Then maybe you picked up a contactless SUBE card, allowing you easy travel on public transport. The good news is that your card is also valid in Bariloche (the bad news is that I found it a challenge to top it up). The better news is that there’s bus #20 to the forested Llao Llao park (stupendous views), as well as bus #55 to Cerro Catedral, and it’s from here that the hike to the best hot chocolate ever begins.
When you step off of #55 you’ll notice that you’re already high in the mountains. Look for a wooden sign marked ‘FREY’, and you’re on your way.
This trek is supposed to be easy. During warmer months it probably is. But we were told by the friendly national park lady in town that Refugio Frey – the mountain refuge we were aiming for – was closed due to snow. But I was determined to undertake this hike, and so we donned waterproofs and set off.
First there was a path along the edge of mountains and with views of many more. Then the path turned up a forested valley, with a rushing stream below. Then we hit the snowline.
What makes it so good?
Fortunately someone had hiked up here since the most recent snowfall. But it was that challenge of wading through waist-high snow in a remote mountain valley that made the hot chocolate taste so good.
When we arrived at the refuge we thought that the national park lady had been right – it looked closed. But then the door opened and we were beckoned inside. A charming man offered us coffee. ‘Chocolate?’ I enquired. He nodded, smiled, and pointed to a table. Three rugged-looking mountaineers sat at another table and gave us a friendly hola.
We were in a remote refuge with a view of the mountains, we’d forged through the snow having passed others who’d decided to turn around, we had (I like to think) the respect of some random mountaineers. That hot chocolate, though not notably tasty, was still the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had – better, even, than the exquisite beverages I’ve enjoyed in Belgium.
Visit Bariloche as part of this 19- to 21-day Southern Argentina itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers)
A 3-minute read featuring the highlights of Antwerp, with personal recommendations and travel tips
I’m going to start this post by throwing some Antwerp facts at you. In the 16th century this indomitable city was the richest in Europe, thanks to pepper, silver, and textile booms, and attracted merchants from across the continent. At the beginning of the century 40% of world trade passed through here.
Reformation, riots, and revolt spurred the city’s decline. Napoleon had plans to reinvigorate the city’s harbour, but Waterloo put paid to those. Amidst the wars that Europe suffered in the last century, Antwerp hosted the Summer Olympics, and then in the 90’s became a major fashion centre.
Drunk man’s lock
Antwerp’s history is writ large on the city’s impressive architecture. In fact, many of the buildings reflect the characters who once lived here.
Take this 16th century lock. See how it has a wiggly ‘V’ of metal lines pointing towards the keyhole? This design allowed the owner to return home from a drunken night out and easily locate the hole with his key.
But this little reflection of character pales into comparison with what can be found in the Zurenborg district.
Art Deco wonderland
In Zurenborg’s “golden triangle” of Transvaalstraat, Waterloostraat, and Cogels Osylei streets you’ll be treated to a huge variety of architecture. Although you’ll find in this Zurenborg district Gothic Revival, Neoclassical, and other styles, it’s Art Deco architecture which prevails.
The buildings here reflect Antwerp’s growing wealth and were mainly constructed between 1896-1904.
They’re in Fashion
In the early 80s a group of fashion designers graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts. They went on to become hugely influential in the fashion world and are known as “The Antwerp Six”.
Thanks in no small part to this group, the city has a thriving fashion district, in which some of the six set up shop. Here you’ll find a plethora of places to go on a spending spree, all centered on Nationalestraat, and with gorgeous shop fronts that are a feast for the eyes.
Antwerp is well-known for its “brown cafés”, allegedly named due to the cigarette smoke which once filled the cafes and leaving the walls stained brown. It’s this slightly rough-at-the-edges, very relaxed feel which make these cafés so appealing.
Inside you’ll find friendly staff, locals, and a large choice of delicious beers (try the Trappist brews, but don’t expect to walk straight afterwards).
In addition to the locations mentioned above, when you’re in Antwerp you shouldn’t miss:
Antwerpen Centraal train station, built in 1895 – an architectural marvel
Cathedral of Our Lady, completed in 1521 (although the south tower was never fully finished) and with impressive stained-glass windows
MAS Museum. This museum is bursting with Belgian history, and has a free-to-visit roof terrace with breathtaking views
St Anna’s Tunnel. This pedestrian tunnel – opened in 1933 – links the two sides of the city
Visit Antwerp as part of this 8-day Belgium itinerary (for Budget, Mid-range, and Luxury travellers)
Getting rocked to sleep at night and watching this wonderful world fly by during the day – night trains are as much of a highlight as the destination you’re travelling to and from. There’s a vast range of long-distance train journeys you can choose in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. Some offer nothing more than a seat or basic bunk bed, others boast opulent suites with their own bathtub and butler. You can even travel for 2,622 miles for just $10.
2021 is the European Year of Rail, and many more night trains are either starting up or being proposed in this continent – it seems that overnight train travel is becoming fashionable again. In fact, in recent years there has been a trend towards ‘train cruises’, and these luxurious journeys are amongst the most spectacular in the world.
Although the routes listed below aren’t necessarily the longest overnight trains in the world, they do offer some of the most breathtaking scenery.
The third longest train journey in the world takes six nights to complete. For the first four days you’ll travel through Russia, skimming through Siberia and vast tracts of silver birch forest. The train speeds along the shores of Lake Baikal – the deepest freshwater body of water in the world – before crossing into Mongolia. Here the landscape changes to dry and dusty, with vast areas free from human habitation. After speeding through the Gobi Desert you’ll reach the Chinese border, where the train gets lifted up so that the wheels can be changed to a new gauge. Onwards through vast hills and beside deep gorges until you emerge into Beijing.
Although you can stay on the train from start to finish, it’s worth stopping off in Russia, as well as spending at least a week in Mongolia. Two trains a week travel between Moscow and Ulan Bator, and two trains a week link Ulan Bator with Beijing.
In 3 days and 10 hours you’re going to see countless lakes and immense pine forests. The scenery then changes to the empty prairies of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, before approaching the gigantic Rocky Mountains. At the rear of the train is the Park car. These carriages were built in the mid-50s and offer views back along the track, a bar, and a raised dome with 360° panorama.
VIA Rail offers long-distance train travellers everything from roomy economy seats to luxurious Prestige class cabins, from where you can watch the Canadian wilderness zoom by from the comfort of your double bed.
Spanning the full length of Eastern India, this route begins in Kanyakumari, on the very tip of this fascinating country, and ends in Dibrugarh, on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra and on the edge of the Himalayas. It takes a little over three days to complete, and you can travel for as little as $10 (but you’d be much more comfortable in 2AC class, where you get a comfortable bed, fresh linen, and air conditioning for just over $60!). Forests, farmland, wide rivers, and crossing the Tropic of Cancer are all highlights.
Indian Railways runs over 13,000 passenger trains every day, employing over 15 million people. If you’d like to travel in more luxury then the Palace on Wheels and Maharajas’ Express may not travel as far, but they do take several days to complete and make long stops in fascinating cities such as Jaisalmer and Udaipur.
Not the longest train journey in the USA (that would be the 2,728-mile Chicago to Los Angeles route), the Chicago to Portland Empire Builder train is perhaps the most spectacular. It begins amidst the architecturally magnificent skyscrapers of Chicago, before traversing the Wisconsin Dells, the Mississippi river, and the immense plains of Montana. It then climbs into the Rockies to the Marias Pass which, at a height of 1,589m, traverses the Continental Divide. The Empire Builder then stops at Glacier National Park, before continuing on through the Cascades and, finally, downtown Portland.
Whether you stay in a cabin or go budget on a seat, you’ll have access to glassy observation cars. The Empire Builder crosses 7 US states and if you travel all the way between Chicago and Portland you’ll be on the train for almost two whole days.
In 54hrs you will travel coast-to-coast through Australia’s immense interior. Shorter than the Perth to Sydney route (2,704 miles), The Ghan instead offers passengers the opportunity to see Uluru, Nitmiluk Gorge, and indigenous rock paintings, while gaining an appreciation of the scale of Australia that you simply don’t get by plane.
Services along this route were inaugurated in 1929, and in addition to having one of the longest routes in the world, The Ghan is also one of the longest passenger trains. At one point it stretched to 44 carriages – just over one kilometre!
Although you can travel from the border with Zimbabwe to Cape Town by long-distance train, the luxurious Blue Train between Pretoria and Cape Town is South Africa’s longest continuous train journey. And wow, what a journey. Not only is the train a wonder in itself (with a bar that looks like a sophisticated wood-panelled club, an elegant observation car, and suites with marble-lined bathrooms), it also travels through valleys, vineyards and vertiginous mountain scenery.
There is a cheaper option to travel this route, but it stops at Johannesburg rather than Pretoria. However, this is still a long-distance journey which takes 26 hours, and costs as little as $12.
In under three days you’ll travel through three countries – starting in Thailand and the bustle of Bangkok, along the Gulf of Thailand coast, over the infamous River Kwai, into the lush forests of Malaysia and grand skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur, and finishing in the twinkling lights of Singapore. The train’s interior may well distract you from the views, with plush, old-timey interiors and exceptional cuisine. Your room for the night comes with an en-suite bathroom and wood-panelled walls – all the luxury you’d expect from a train operated by the same people who run the legendary Venice-Simplon-Orient Express.
This route is the end of the proposed Kunming to Singapore railway line, which will continue from Bangkok and through either Laos or Cambodia and Vietnam into China. It’s due to be completed in 2022 and will be 2,400 miles (3,900 km) in length with a journey time of 30 hours from one end to the other.
South America’s longest train journey begins in the magnificent capital of Argentina before gliding along the Pampas 26.5 hours later, through the large city of Rosario, across the huge Parana River, and on to Tucuman – just in sight of the snowy Aconquija mountains on the edge of the Andes.
Train travel is rare in South America, but because of the size of Argentina it has one of the longest networks in the world. The Buenos Aires to Tucuman route is now 73 years old, and although the long-distance train that ran along it was once considered one of the most luxurious in the word, sleeper cabins are now much more basic (but clean and comfortable), but you do get access to the dining car which serves delicious Argentinian cuisine.
Travel at night and enjoy the typical comforts of a basic sleeper cabin, waking up to the scenery of south-west Italy’s Campania region. You’ll soon also be able to see the Mediterranean as the train hugs the coast. Head to the rear of the train for views back along the track – perfect for watching the journey through verdant valleys. Perhaps the highlight of this long-distance train is the ferry that takes the carriages across to Sicily (exit your carriage for the ferry journey to see this unusual sight, before re-boarding for the final leg along the Sicilian coast and Mt Etna).
There are many train ferries in existence worldwide, the one between Villa San Giovanni on the Italian mainland and Messina in Sicily offers views of the island’s mountainous interior, as well as the many shops which cross the Strait of Messina.
Over 21 hours you’ll see the grand capitals of Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia. The Regiojet train winds through hills, ancient forests, and villages as you whizz along on the journey south. You’ll pass various mountain ranges both during the day and as you sleep in either a chair or comfy couchette bed (breakfast included). Your first glimpse of the Adriatic precedes the train’s descent into sunny Split – gateway to some stunning Croatian islands.
Although new long-distance train routes are popping up all over Europe, there are many already in existence. Paris to Moscow is the longest on this continent (2,164 miles, 3,483 km), with others covering destinations as far north as Narvik in Norway – 140 miles inside the Arctic Circle – all the way south to the aforementioned island of Sicily.
Reading about places I’d love to visit but which I’m currently unable to (pandemic) may seem like a form of torture, but the best travel bloggers can expertly use words to take you along on their journey and make you almost feel as though you’re there with them. Plus, as evidenced by my own blog, I love to plan and these bloggers provide a never-ending source of inspiration and tips. Here are some of the best that I’ve noticed this month.
What a wonderful way to learn about Stone Town’s rich Arabian and Indian trading history, and the characters who have passed through. I’ll admit that, when I visited Zanzibar, although I noticed the intricate doors, I didn’t fully appreciate them, nor how they linked this tropical island with the subcontinent, and how each door seems to tell a story.
In addition to illustrating this post with dozens of delightful door pics, Madhurima’s fun digressions also give an insight into Indian culture. Now, please excuse me while I shop at B&Q for a door which can deter elephants.
I really didn’t think that a Polish dining car could be so much fun until I read this article, but it seems as though, in the country’s post-war Communist years, they were packed with raucous drinkers having a grand old time. Well, until they woke up with a hangover the next morning hundreds of kilometers from their destination.
Juliette Bretan’s hugely entertaining article brings us up to the modern era, where those 70 year-old dining cars are still in operation today. She describes how they’re now much more chic, and that the food served on board is freshly cooked – far less dubious than the stuff that was once presented in jars – making the dining car a highlight of any journey.
As part of a chat about volcanos, @PlaneTicketAway shared this video of a journey they’d done to Nyiragongo volcano in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s a wonderful few minutes’ insight into this tour, including the travel there, as well as quite breathtaking footage of the active volcano itself.
Being ‘stuck’ in the UK has provided many people the opportunity to better get to know their own country. Thanks to bloggers such as Matt, my eyes have been opened to places that rival many I’ve travelled thousands of miles to see. Even better, the page that he’s created contains a wealth of information on how to walk what looks like a spectacular route along the Gower Peninsula coast path. As someone who loves to plan, this has a lot of appeal for me!
I walked the Cotswolds way several years ago, briefly lived in the area after a South America trip, and now run a boutique holiday cottage in Winchcombe. Jackie Scully puts into words my reasons for why I’ve fallen in love with this Area of Outstanding National Beauty.
If you’re interested in visiting then you’ll find no better source for planning than this article, which focuses on the less-touristy, non-crowded, but equally (if not more so) beautiful villages which are scattered along the Cotswolds Ring walk. This route combines, in my opinion, the best walks in the region, as well as delightful villages such as Guiting Power where the coaches don’t dare to tackle the narrow country lanes.
I was just about to publish this post when I saw this article by Mia Bay re-tweeted onto my timeline (thanks @travel4thestars and @travelhistory1). It outlines the abhorrent discrimination faced by Black passengers during the Jim Crow era, including Ella Fitzgerald who was bumped off a flight during a layover on tour, and had to wait three days for the next one.
Although this is a record of what happened decades ago, it’s worth adding that discrimination in travel is far from a thing of the past (watch this Ted Talk by Evita Robinson of NOMADNESS for a glimpse into that).
Located in Washington State’s wondrous Olympic National Park (designated by President Roosevelt in 1909), Lake Crescent lodge is perched on the edge of this large lake, with pine forests and mountains all around.
This lodge was built just 6 years after the Olympic peninsula became a national park, and as soon as you enter the main building you’ll realise you’re somewhere special. Fireplaces keep you warm, and the view across the lake from the Sun Porch is breathtaking. If you’re in need of fresh air then you can sit at the end of the pier, hire a kayak, or go hiking in the nearby woods to a waterfall.
Although the lodge is listed as a 3*, stay in a Roosevelt Fireplace Cabin and you’ll see why I think this lodge deserves its luxury title. However, there is a large range of accommodation for all budgets.
In addition to the fine accommodation, the lodge also offers fine dining, with fresh salmon served up on cedar boards being one of my favourite dishes here.
Prices start at $138/night for more basic accommodation, rising to $301 for those indulgent cabins. Combine this with a £311 return flight from the UK, $49 for the return bus journey, and car hire for 4 days from £177, you could have a 3 nights in this incredible lodge only £825 (although I do recommend those cabins, and staying in the area for much longer, maybe even taking the train to Canada!).
I’ve recently taken the step of investing in the UK domestic tourism market. I have been running a holiday cottage in a gorgeous Cotswolds town since September 2020, and so far it’s proving to be a popular place to go. My experience of running this cottage has also informed myself as a traveller and the differences in holiday home rental prices.
If you’re looking for a home rental for your holiday, then you should be aware that the main platforms are charge small businesses a large range of commission:
Note that this commission is taken out of all fees that you may pay too. So, for example, if as a holiday home owner I charge my customers £80 cleaning fee, Booking.com will take £16 of that – if I need to pay my cleaner £80 then I have lost £16 because of Booking.com’s commission. I will therefore increase my cleaning fee on this platform accordingly.
Because Booking.com take the largest commission, I will charge the highest holiday home rental prices on this platform. Because AirBnB and Tripadvisor charge the lowest commission, my prices are cheaper on those platforms. I doubt that I’m alone in adjusting my prices this way.
My advice, therefore, would be that if you are looking to rent a holiday home, compare the price on Booking.com and on AirBnB as the owner may well have also decided to increase their prices on Booking.com in order to receive the same income. You may pay, for example, £400 for your holiday on AirBnB, but £480 on Booking.com, with the owner receiving exactly the same income.
Even better, of course, is booking direct. Neither you nor the owner will pay fees to a third party, and the owner may also be able to give you a discount for your next stay if you book direct – this is what I do, anyway.
Oh, and if you’re interested in my place, contact me – I’ll give you an excellent price!
If you’re lucky enough to be in the USA in spring you may notice that, as the pandemic slowly recedes, the country is starting to open up to domestic tourism again. Some states are understandably remaining closed to visitors from both home and abroad, but of those which you can now visit I’ve found some springtime inspiration.
Maple Sugaring in New Hampshire
We’re coming to the end of Maple Sugaring Month in New Hampshire, which means there are loads of sweet treats to be found throughout the state. You’ll also notice all the trees coming into bud and flowers popping up everywhere – the perfect time for a cycle or walk.
A tiny light of future travel is beginning to appear at the end of the tunnel. Throughout this pandemic I’ve been really impressed at how travel bloggers/writers/sites have continued to publish engaging content, and in March I saw a huge variety of articles and posts. I’ve no doubt that some passed me by, but here are a few which caught my attention this month:
I’m intrigued by ghost towns, but haven’t really been to all that many (or any, come to think of it). I’d never heard of Grafton, but Hannah’s post was full of useful and interesting information, not least the amazing history of the town, as well as some enticing photography. The fact that one of the most famous Westerns ever made was filmed in Grafton really makes me want to visit.
‘Chile National Parks’ – just those three words are enough to cast images of vast landscapes into my mind. The collection of travel bloggers on Green Mochila’s post have put together clear and concise guides to 9 of their favourites. This is a really useful resource for anyone thinking of visiting Chile.
Fergal chats with Sean about his recent solo ascent of Cerro Fitz Roy, which has received worldwide recognition. I spent my 40th birthday staring out the window, Sean spent it on this impressive mountain having been ‘stuck’ in El Chalten for 13 months. This is a fascinating listen about the six 6am-midnight days that Sean experienced when climbing – I particularly like that he played a tin whistle on every summit, and as someone who loves Patagonia but can only stare at those summits in awe, I particularly enjoyed hearing about how strange it is to return to ground after spending up to 20 days on rock faces.
Japan isn’t exactly famous for being a budget destination and, having been to Tokyo, I think I’d find it a challenge to write an entire post about how to visit the city on a budget. And yet Char has done just this. Reading this post (and any of Char’s writing) was fun – lots of humour and personal views mixed with handy tips. I’m also grateful for the reminder of the Klook app.
With a title like ‘Che Guevara meets Fidel Castro in Mexico City’ how could I resist reading? Sure enough this post by Nomadic Backpacker lives up to the headline, with some useful background info as well as a fair few fascinating facts that I’m sure many of us had never known before. In these times I appreciate more than ever the ability to travel via other people’s words and pictures, and the images here do a great job of transporting me into Mexico City streets and cafes.
Today (21 March 2021) this wonderful website turns 20. I’ve used it on my travels through 6 continents and never fail to be impressed by Mark’s passion for rail travel. Whenever I take the Eurostar service I always think of Mark’s favourite seat 61 – many congratulations to him, I can’t wait to see what the next 20 years has in store for rail travel.
You are now in one of my favourite luxury hotels in Slovakia. With a Lake View room you can sit on your balcony and marvel at the Štrbské Pleso lake and Tatras Mountains, which rise up to 2,655m.
After a day of following well-marked trails mountains (many of which pass close to the hotel), you can ease your aches in the chandelier-strewn spa. Here you can enjoy views over the mountains through which you walked, while soaking in a hot tub, sweating in a sauna, or swimming the 16-metre pool. This spa is worth the journey here alone and I must have spent many hours here gawping at the view.
Meals – including breakfast – are served in the elegant Grand Restaurant. There’s something very special about enjoying Champagne with your breakfast in a large room warmed by a massive fireplace at one end and furnished with pale wood beams above.
I particularly liked how I could stagger into the pristine reception, covered in dirt from scrambling up rocks, and the staff didn’t even bat an eyelid.
I’ve seen prices for as low as £159/night. Combine this with a £30 return flight from London, a £12 return taxi journey, and a return train ticket for just over £3, you could have a 5* ultra-luxurious 3 day spa/hiking break in the mountains for only £522.
As I hope you know by now, this site curates the best that travel has to offer, and makes it easy for you to simply get up and go. With this in mind, and with the vast amount of travel content out there, I thought I’d start the occasional post to share the very best that I’ve seen, which this month (but not necessarily written this month) includes:
Simon Calder interview
One of my personal travel faves, Simon Calder, appeared on Travel.Radio. It was fascinating to hear more about how Simon first found his way into travel and then into journalism. He describes how “I’ve also come to realise that my greatest joy is pacing the streets of a new city” and that “London isn’t exactly new but there is still enough to be discovered and I’m walking two hours every day” (something I’ve also been doing!)
He doesn’t hold back on criticising the catastrophic response of the UK government to the pandemic, and how the travel industry has been particularly effected. “Government has shown time and again that it has no interest in the sector”. Well quite. He finishes with how travel is going to eventually bounce back. I particularly enjoyed hearing about how he loves the Alhambra, Cuba (and the terrible food), and Uzbekistan. And it helps that he has good taste in music.
Ever with his finger on the railway pulse, The Man In Seat 61 drew my attention to the new RegioJet overnight service Between Prague and Split, and how this journey can easily be booked online. Keep an eye on Seat61 for further updates and full details of this new route.
On this same subject, Mobilettre featured this article about the expansion of France’s night trains. And then there’s the possible Barcelona to Frankfurt night train, and Brussels to Malmö…night train’s really do seem to be having a renaissance.
This felt like a really brave post from Emilys Eyes Explore, which recounted all those times when travelling solo wasn’t all that fun. A lot of the situations she found herself in felt very familiar, but handily she’s included some tips so that you can hopefully avoid these misadventures.
This excellent article by Pól Ó Conghaile describes what a lot of us in travel are feeling; the fact that our industry has been shamed and torn apart for no good reason. Pól hints at how ridiculous it was for a certain government minister to state that no-one is going travelling until the whole world is vaccinated, and finishes with a nice summary about how incredibly important travel is to us all.
Transnistria is one of those places that I’ve always been aware of, but never really knew much about. Mind Of A Hitchhiker’s guest post by Heidi Koelle goes into great detail about this unrecognised state, including what it’s like to visit, as well as useful information if you want to see it yourself. So good to read travel content about somewhere relatively unknown by someone who clearly is an expert on the subject.
RJOnTour has been doing a great job of piquing my interest in hikes here in the UK – a country which I will no doubt do much more exploring of once we’re allowed. His post on Cornwall’s Lansallos Bay has everything you need to seek out this particular highlight of the South West Coast Path.