Island hopping

I’ve long wanted to try island hopping in the Caribbean. When I started researching my trip there I was happy to see that it is possible to get a ferry between St Lucia, Dominica and Guadeloupe. However, I also wanted to see Barbados and so managed to find a cheap flight from Ecuador, via Florida and then another flight between Barbados and St Lucia.

These islands all felt very different. Barbados was relatively flat and had a plethora of incredible beaches. St Lucia had more variety; a few amazing beaches, mountains and rainforest. Dominica wasn’t great for beaches but offered a magnificent, verdant interior, as well as whale watching opportunities. Guadeloupe had good and easy hikes in the mountains, a large choice of beaches and a distinct French flair.

I knew that it would be easy to create a Luxury version of the Eastern Caribbean itinerary, the Mid-Range version was also pretty simple to put together. The Budget version was, however, more of a challenge, but it is entirely possible to see this part of the world without spending a fortune (partly thanks to the low cost airlines which fly there from the US).

We stayed in a range of accommodation, my favourite being the luxurious hotel on the side of a hill overlooking St Lucia’s dramatic pitons. The lowlight? Dominica’s incredibly disorganised border at the ferry port. It was so bad I nearly dropped this island from the itinerary, but its an amazing place and so worth going through immigration pain.

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Living the high life

In 2008 we set out to travel from London to Nepal without taking any flights. We celebrated reaching that goal atop Poon Hill, 3200 metres high and with a view of several 7000+ metre-high mountains. What a stupendous country Nepal is.

Of course, if hiking isn’t really your thing then there are other ways to view those magnificent Himalaya; on a white water rafting expedition (which I can also highly recommend), from an aeroplane, from an infinity pool in your luxurious hotel… Then there’s the fascinating city of Kathmandu, friendly hill-top villages and the wonderful wildlife of Chitwan National Park.

The Nepal itinerary was one of those few where Luxury, Mid-range and Budget travellers all, at one point, stay in the same accommodation. When you’re on a remote trek there isn’t much choice but to stay in a teahouse and they’re all pretty basic. But they’re also an enjoyable part of the trekking experience and, after a day of hiking up steep hills, any bed is welcome!

I chose to include a trek in the Annapurna region rather than nearer to Everest. This is because I have direct experience of this trek and know that it’s one of the best you’ll ever do. Plus, if you’re short of time, you can still see Everest on a special flight. If you do have more time then I would absolutely recommend trekking up to Everest Base Camp – flying between Kathmandu and Pokhara is the best way to make up that time.

“I will not let you go into the unknown alone”

Travelling through Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria was one of the first holidays I took with my girlfriend (who became my wife). It’s therefore been a while since I was there but, having done a lot of research, it seems as though (thankfully) the sights you have to see haven’t changed. Not surprising, considering many of these sights are centuries old.

Budapest is a destination in its own right, as evidenced by the many tourists who come here for a weekend break, but it’s also a great place to start this itinerary and enjoy an overnight train to Romania. Waking up in Transylvania is a special treat – fortunately the only things which seem immortal around here are the remote, well-preserved castles, which are especially atmospheric.

Although taking the train can be a comfortable way of travelling, it isn’t necessarily the fastest and this is true in Romania. This itinerary therefore incorporates a bus journey to speed luxury, mid-range and budget travellers to Sofia in Bulgaria.

My abiding memories of Sofia are the golden dome of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, the military artifacts on sale at Bitaka Flea Market (hand grenade anyone?) and the astonishingly delicious ice cream. I have tried to pack in as many amazing, unforgettable sights into this 11-day Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria itinerary. My only challenge was trying not to mention Dracula too much…

Not just your imagination

Close your eyes and imagine Indonesia. When you see this country for yourself you’ll realise that what you pictured is probably pretty accurate. In fact, the reality will likely exceed expectations. 

There’s the well-preserved temples of Borobodur, the alien landscape of Mount Bromo and the perfect, serene rice terraces around Ubud. And then, of course, there are glorious beaches.

Waking up before dawn to see sunrise at Bromo was both exhausting and incredibly rewarding. We only used buses to get about, but the railway on Java seems as though it works well and therefore a good option for travellers. 

For these itineraries I’ve tried to avoid the crowds in Kuta, but there are great luxury, mid-range and budget options available and so, after the idyll of Lombok, it seemed a good and sensible place in which to end this journey. Just a word of warming if taking bemos; hold on tight and prepare to have many conversations with locals.

Small but perfectly formed

One of my most amusing and abiding travel memories comes from when a friend and I travelled through Central America. We were in Monteverde, Costa Rica and decided to take the aerial tramway, which turned out to be an incredibly sedate ride through the canopy – so sedate that we were given blankets to put over our knees and the ride stopped at a little window for tea. Not quite the adrenaline rush two young lads were looking for.

I’m very happy to see that the tramway is still there, as are most of the amazing things we saw and did in Costa Rica. I wanted to pack in as many of these sights as possible in the two-week itinerary and to ensure that the luxury, mid-range and budget versions got to see everything. This isn’t a cheap country and, with shuttle buses being the easiest way to get between places, it was a challenge to get public transport info.

Finding the perfect, most convenient beaches at the end of the itinerary was key. It would be a shame, after all, to visit Costa Rica and not relax on some of the most scenic sand along the Pacific Rim.

We entered Costa Rica from Panama and departed into Nicaragua. When I get around to building itineraries for those countries I’m going to have to link them to this one, because an extended journey through Central America is highly recommended. However, if you had to pick just one country to see here then Costa Rica – with all its beaches, forests, wildlife and volcanoes – is an excellent choice.

Lay all your love on Sweden

I can’t quite remember why I decided to take a chance on Gotland, but I’m glad I did. This Baltic island usually swarms with tourists in warmer months, but with snow still on the ground it often felt as though we had the place to ourselves. The capital, Visby, was full of charm and the empty shells of ruined churches – atmospheric doesn’t begin to describe it.

The serenity of Gotland contrasted with the bustle of Stockholm. The hotel in which we stayed was about as hipster as it gets, with even skateboards available to hire in the lobby. Although it had a good view from the roof, the ratings it receives aren’t particularly great and so, for this Sweden itinerary, I’ve chosen to recommend other accommodation from the vast choice available in this city.

Of course, the main cultural reason for visiting Sweden is to go to the ABBA Museum. Well, it is for some. For others there is the vast wilderness of Lapland, Gothenburg’s castle, the long Göta Canal and much more. Unfortunately, this country can cost a lot of money, money, money but the bigggest outlay for budget travellers will be the train pass – once you’ve got that you can live pretty cheaply.

So, if you have a dream of visiting Sweden and want to see it in style, or something more mid-range is the name of the game, or if you’re one of us budget travellers, then just say I do, I do, I do, I do.

(Too much) dust in the wind

A cool wind provided a prelude to the rising sun, which began to paint the desert landscape a vivid red. If there was one moment which reminds me of Namibia, it is this one, sat on top of the immense Dune 45. Shame that wind blew dust into my camera. Ah well, it was worth it.

When I visited Namibia it was on an overland tour from Cape Town to Victoria Falls. I wasn’t burdened, therefore, by public transport, which is scant in this sparsely populated country. Hiring a (4×4) car is, however, a great part of the experience with long drives through spectacular, untouched scenery. Even budget travellers should give it a go (fuel is expensive and so I’ve kept self-drives to a minimum for those on a budget).

As well as Dune 45 at Sossussvlei, there are many astounding sights in Namibia – the vast Fish River Canyon, the busy watering holes in Etosha National Park, the shipwreck-strewn Skeleton Coast. All of them so remarkable I can easily visualise them all these years later. I also vividly remember sand boarding and I’m sure I’m still finding sand, 18 years later.

Accommodation can book up early in Namibia, possibly because decent places are hard to find. Those I have found do, however, look excellent. With South Africa and Botswana just across the border, Namibia is a worthy destination as part of a longer trip. Once I find a reliable timetable and means of public transport between Namibia and Maun in Botswana I’ll be sure to link both countries and advise on how to travel between them.

Beaches, buses and budgets

The Fiji & Samoa itinerary is only the second I’ve created for a destination I’ve never been to. Fortunately Fiji has a simple bus system with an online timetable. Planning for travellers who can afford to hire a car is, thanks to Google Maps, a breeze.

I have been fortunate enough to visit the Cook Islands, but what appealed about Fiji and Samoa was their relative proximity to one another. Like the Cook Islands they seem to burst with culture, beautiful interiors and, of course, some of the most perfect beaches you’ll ever see.

This is the only itinerary where the budget traveller visits very different places to the luxury and mid-range travellers. Why? Because it’s so expensive to fly to and from Samoa. I took a look at freighter routes between the two countries, but these aren’t cheap, they seem uncomfortable and they take a long time. For the sake of visiting a new country it didn’t seem worth it, and so the budget travellers get to visit Fiji’s Yasawas Islands instead.

One last note about this itinerary; the Octopus Resort which features on the budget itinerary is a luxury beach resort on a remote (but easily reachable) island. They do, however, have a building with comfortable and cheap dorm accommodation. Their reason for this is so that there are a mix of guests on the resort, not just older, wealthy folk. This seems like a brilliant idea and I hope that other establishments follow suit.

Perfection isn’t cheap

Of all the 83 countries I’ve been to, none has yet to knock Switzerland off the top of my favourites list. Why? Because it has breathtaking mountain scenery, cute Alpine villages, an excellent public transport system which takes you to the top of mountains, clean cities and an admirable appreciation of cheese and chocolate.

What’s the biggest obstacle for enjoying this country? Cost. If budget isn’t a problem you’ll have a wonderful time. If budget is a problem you’ll still have a wonderful time, but will have to be much more careful about how you spend your money.

The Switzerland itinerary I’ve created will be one of the most expensive journeys you take, regardless if you’re a luxury, mid-range or budget traveller. I tried to find alternatives to the railway system for budget travellers, but bus travel here is scant and so I’ve found the best way to use the railways without spending a fortune.

Thankfully Switzerland has an excellent youth hostel organisation which even mid-range travellers may want to consider. I also love the concept of the chain which sells products at the end of their sell-by date. But what to do with all those saved Swiss Francs? Take advantage of Swiss engineering, of course, by riding cable cars and cog railways up to the very tops of those picture-perfect mountains.

Persistance pays off

I nearly gave up on creating an itinerary for Kenya. It was hard to find info online and the various conversations I had with operators in the country rarely led to anything useful. Scheduled public transport doesn’t go to the Masai Mara or Amboseli. Although it’s probably possible to get matatus (colourful minibuses), they don’t operate to a timetable and so don’t help with planning, plus it could take a couple of days to do just a few hundred kilometres.

Frustrated, I decided to put together the Peru itinerary instead. Whilst doing this some of the safari and helicopter operators replied to me and so I was eventually able to put something together. What was (for me) an exciting discovery was that Kenya has a decent railway system which is being extended to other countries – now I’d love to one day travel from Nairobi to Kigali by train.

Kenya has spectacular beaches, but safety in this country is an important consideration. Diani Beach is picture-perfect, is far away enough from trouble, is fairly easy to get to and offers a large range of accomodation – a good place, therefore, in which to end a journey in must-see Kenya.