Eastern Trail

I finally did it, I took the plunge and uploaded my first YouTube video! It’s nothing fancy, simply a GoPro short of my time travelling Eastern Europe with Contiki. I look forward to making more of these and eventually transitioning to ‘proper’ YouTube videos. In the meantime, you can check my first video out here:

The tour featured is the nine-day Eastern Trail, and takes in seven European countries: Austria, Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia and Italy. The full itinerary can be found here.

Gateway to India

Like many, I have spent much of lockdown dreaming of not only when I can travel again, but where I will travel too. Stunning images of destinations near and far have filled my Instagram feed; Turkey, Greece, Hawaii, Vietnam, Australia. Although unlike ‘before’ many of the images are from locals rather than tourists and I have to say, I’m rather enjoying seeing a destination from a locals perspective. It’s refreshing for my explore page to be filled with authentic images rather than those that are staged for the ultimate amount of likes and comments.

One destination that has come up, again and again, is India. A destination that has been pretty low on my travel bucket list, until now. The India that is my imagination; colourful, chaotic and exotic exists alongside tigers, temples, palaces and bazaars. However, it’s the everyday side of India that has caught my imagination; here are the Instagram accounts of some of my favourite locals:

Harswaroop captures a different view of the Pink City with the intricate beauty of this doorway found in the capital of India’s Rajasthan state. Jaipur evokes the royal family that once ruled the region and the City Palace and Hawa Mahal (Jaipur’s most-distinctive landmark) dominate social media feeds. However, it’s the marvellous doors of the inner courtyard of the City Palace that caught my attention. Pictured here is the Lehariya Gate, the vivid green represents the green of Spring season and is dedicated to Lord Ganesha.

Jalebis, captured by Shourya, is a sweet snack found all over India and are made by deep-frying maida flour batter in pretzel or circular shapes, it’s then soaked in sugar syrup, and can be served warm or cold.

Located in Kolkata, the Mallick Ghat Flower Market is the largest in the whole of India. The flower market is over 130 years old, and people travel from all over the city and suburbs to sell flowers here. It is primarily for people who want to pick up flowers for temple offerings and prayers. This image, captured by Jyoti, captures the organised chaos of the market perfectly.

This image from Ashwani highlights just one of the many modes of transport available to locals in India. Captured in Kolkata, the capital of India’s West Bengal state, this bus transports locals daily from their homes to their place of employment.

Dhobi Ghat is Mumbai‘s 140-year-old, open-air laundromat and it is estimated that each day over half a million pieces of clothing are sent here from hotels, hospitals, and homes, for the over 200 traditional laundrymen to wash. It’s an impressive operation and one that warrants hard work, which Navya has captured well with this photo.

Khari Baoli Wale, located in Delhi, is the largest spice market in the whole of Asia. Narrow lanes, covered by hessian sacks, are packed with huge parcels of herbs and spices. Electric red chillies, vibrant yellow turmeric and bright green cardamoms are just some of the spices included in the eye-catching displays. However, there is more to the market than large crowds and an overwhelming abundance of smells, like the sunset from the market’s rooftop as captured by Deepak.

It’s hard not to visit the Taj Mahal and capture an ‘Instagram’ photo. Other than the fact that it wasn’t, the building was built for Instagram. I’m sure, like mine, that your feed is filled with the signature image of the Taj Mahal – tourists sat on the iconic bench in front of the Taj Mahal. While that’s great and a must-do, it’s so refreshing to see a different angle of the Taj Mahal, like this one from Romita from North East India. The lighting cast on the exterior of the building is perfect, and the detail featured shows off the immaculate building, built to serve as a memorial for Shah Jahan’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631.

Thanks to these locals, India has made it’s to the top of my list of planned travel destinations for 2021. Being such a large country, I know I won’t cover it all. If you’ve made it to India before, where do you recommend I don’t miss? Let me know in the comments below!

The big red

Stepping out of the van, I am hit in the face by intense heat, yet I don’t notice it, not really, my attention is elsewhere. My eyes are drawn like magnets to the solitary and prodigious sight before me.

I have just spent the last three weeks traversing the east coast of Australia; snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef, sailing the Whitsunday Islands, exploring Fraser Island, Sydney and Cairns. After flying across the top end and spending a few days in Darwin, I embarked on an epic train journey. The Ghan is regarded as one of the world’s greatest rail journeys and gazing out the window at the ever-changing landscape; I could see why. Sitting back in my seat, I took in the tropical greens of Darwin and Katherine and the rusty reds of the MacDonnell Ranges.

After a restless nights sleep, I was awoken by the whistle of the train piercing the silence of the calm exterior as we made our approach into Alice Springs. Disembarking the train, it felt good to stretch my legs. I located my transfer and made my way to my night’s accommodation, a base before tomorrows adventure.

I awoke super early the next morning, way before the sun, filled with excitement. The day had arrived – I was heading out into the Big Red. I lumped my luggage into the back of the van and introduced myself to our driver and guide; Tom. Tom was a typical Aussie bloke, wearing a white t-shirt that was no longer white and a Crocodile Dundee style hat, he had abundant knowledge of the Northern Territory.

After several hours on the road, the first orange hued rays of sunshine kiss the horizon and those on the bus began to stir. It wasn’t long before we made a roadside stop; we split up and like a colony of ants working together to collect wood for that evening’s campfire. Back on board, introductions were made: a family and several friends from Taiwan and some solo travellers from the UK, Germany, Switzerland and Australia. A friendly buzz now filled the van while Tom navigated us deeper the outback.

And then I saw it, the rugged carmine blur in the distance – Uluru.

Our group gathers and we begin our base walk. Following in the footsteps of ancestral beings we pass blackened stripes from channelled rainwater, acacia woodlands, grassed claypans and caves that are roped off from the public, reserved only for traditional business by the local indigenous men and women. Tom tells us stories of The Dreamtime, the Mala people and the incredible rock art.

Before we make our way to the sunset viewing site, I take a moment to stand before Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock, and just be. I block out the noise of the nearby chattering tourists and the distant cricket and allow myself to soak up the spirituality and majesty of Uluru, and as I stand in front of the spectacular natural formation, I realise just why people travel halfway across a continent to see it.

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The Ghan
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The Ghan Carriage
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Alice Springs Train Station
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Collecting Fire Wood
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Thorny Devil/Thorny Dragon (Australian Lizard) Found Whilst Collecting Fire Wood
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Kangaroo Warning Sign Near Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park
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Uluru Base Walk
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Uluru Base Walk – Blackened Stripes From Channelled Rainwater
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Uluru Base Walk – Wall Art
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Uluru at Sunset

Call it magic

Pastel-hued deco design buildings, palm-fringed boulevards and sun-kissed bodies on white-sand beaches; Miami – the beating heart of the state of Florida.

During the two and a half years that I spent living and working in North Carolina, I was fortunate enough to experience the variety that the Sunshine State has to offer on numerous occasions; this included two separate trips to Miami. My first time in the aptly named ‘Magic City,’ I travelled with a friend, and we celebrated the New Year, hitting up the key attractions in South Beach and Downtown Miami. The second time I visited, I was by myself; I hired a car and ventured out a little further.

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Ocean Drive
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Ocean Drive

Miami and its surrounding suburbs could almost be a world of their own, a melting pot of ethnicities from around the USA, the Caribbean and Latin America. Miami is one of the few genuinely international cities in the United States – over half the population is Latino and more than 60% speak predominantly Spanish – with so many different facets, it’s hard to believe they all fit in one place.

When tourists think of Miami, they generally consider Miami Beach to be a part of Miami when in fact it is a municipality of it its own. Miami is on the mainland, while Miami Beach is four miles east across the Biscayne Bay. Miami Beach, more specifically Ocean Drive in South Beach (1st to 11th Street) is everything that you see in the movies, white sand, art-deco design, cruising cars and in-line skaters.

The pastel shaded heart of South Beach is the world-famous Historic Art-Deco District. Stretching between 5th and 23rd Street, along Ocean Drive, Collins Drive and Washington Drive, the whimsical pastel buildings evoke the beauty of Miami and were, in the early 20th century, meant to arouse the future and futuristic modes of transport. Today, the 800 plus 1930s and 1940s art-deco structures have National Protection. Ocean Drive has some of the most striking art-deco architecture in Miami Beach. Between 11th and 14th streets you’ll see some of the best examples: the Congress Hotel  shows pristine symmetry in it’s three story exterior. The Tides is one of the most beautiful nautical themed hotels, and the Cavalier (pictured below) flaunts its seahorse theme, in stylised depictions of the sea creature.

Avalon Hotel, Ocean Drive
Cavalier Hotel, Ocean Drive

Dotting the shores of South Beach itself are the brightly coloured South Beach Lifeguard stands. Each stand has a unique art-deco design and features an array of bright colours. The stands were introduced after Hurricane Andrew hit Florida’s shores in the early 1990s and became a hallmark of Miami’s revival after the devastation. Today, there are 31 chimerical stands scattered along South Beach, and besides providing support to the Miami Beach Patrol Lifeguard staff, they’ve become a cherished symbol of Miami. Each lifeguard stand has its own charm, but my personal favourite is the lifeguard station at 13th street, (pictured below) painted red, white and blue, it depicts the beloved American flag.

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5th Street Lifeguard Stand © fotomak
shutterstock_512234701 (c) Alexander Demyanenko
13th Street Lifeguard stand © Alexander Demyanenko
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South Beach Aerial © Miami2you

South Beach offers much more than just white sand beaches and beautiful buildings. It is home to some of the best bars and restaurants in the whole of Miami, if not the world. Whenever I travel, I attempt to eat local cuisine that is low-cost. Nonetheless, I will always treat myself to at least one meal from an acclaimed restaurant. In Miami, I chose Hakkasan. Located on the top floor of the Fontainebleau Hotel’s spaceship-like tower, Hakkasan is a Michelin star, award-winning restaurant that offers modern Cantonese cuisine. Hakkasan has been rated within the top 20 restaurants in the world by Restaurant Magazine, and after dining here, it’s not hard to understand why. It’s as close to a perfect dining experience that one can have; from the 1930s Shanghai setting to the attentive waiters to the flavour infused food. My recommendation: Crispy Orange Chicken.

Another noteworthy restaurant in South Beach is the Sugar Factory. Located on Ocean Drive itself, Sugar Factory is an American Brasserie famous for its celebrity-inspired Couture Pops. Having dined at another of their locations in the Meatpacking district of New York City, I knew the standard of food would be high and the selection extensive. I wasn’t disappointed. After much contemplating, I ordered a S’mores Martini (non-alcoholic) and the Banana-Split waffle. The waffle was cooked perfectly, and the fruit so fresh and juicy. The martini, however, was unrivalled. The star of the show.

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Sugar Factory Banana-Split Waffle
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Sugar Factory S’mores Martini

Across Biscayne Bay is Downtown Miami, the beating urban heart of Miami. The bustling epicentre is packed tightly with fluorescing skyscrapers, modern art galleries and a wealth of shops, bars and restaurants. Downtown Miami is a mix of old and new, a neighbourhood of layers and unlike other parts of Miami, you don’t need a car. Free public transport is available to shuttle you from place to place, and parts of downtown are walkable.

It was downtown, from the Bayside Marketplace, north of the Miami river, that my friend and I embarked on our cruise around the Miami Islands. A 90-minute narrated tour past the Downtown Miami skyline, the Port of Miami, Fisher Island, Miami Beach and Millionaires Row – an exclusive area of Miami known for its billion-dollar, star-studded homes. I found our cruise not only enjoyable but informative and marvelled at the grandeur of the houses sprinkled through the Miami islands.

Bayside Market Place © oneinchpunch
Shaquille O’neal’s House
Liz Taylor’s House

Little Havana is Miami’s vibrant Cuban heart and is the most prominent community of Cuban Americans in the United States. The district is a living, breathing, immigrant enclave and was one of the neighbourhoods I was most excited to explore. Cubans began migrating to Florida in the 1950s, but their numbers swelled after Castro came to power in 1959, and in the 1960s the area was named Little Havana. Its main drag, Calle Ocho, attracts tourists for authentic Latino food and music, however when I wandered off the main track, I saw the neighbourhood unfold.

My first time in Miami, I found a hole in the wall take out (Pinolandia, 119 NW 12th Ave, Miami) and in broken Spanish, I ordered the best Cuban/Nicaraguan food I have ever sampled. Strips of succulent steak, rice and beans and the most delicious Cuban toast. Upon returning to Miami a few years later, I visited the famous Versailles Restaurant, featured in one of my most loved movies, ‘CHEF.’ Versailles restaurant is ranked the number one restaurant for Cuban food in Miami year after year. Be sure to try the celebrated Cuban sandwich if dining at Versailles.

Located on the corner of Calle Ocho and 15th Avenue is Maximo Gomez Park, or as the locals call it ‘Domino Park.’ Named after the famous Cuban revolutionary commander, Maximo Gomez, the park is a quintessential hangout for Cuban veterans and families. It is where you’ll find the real Little Havana locals smoking Cuban cigars, talking over the latest headlines, all while playing a game of dominoes.

Calle Ocho
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Murals painted on the exterior wall of ‘La Esquina De La Fama.’
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Versaille’s Restaurant, 8th Street
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Domino Park

When I visited Miami solo, I rented myself a car as it allowed me the freedom to explore further. If you head north, away from South Beach, you’ll find the Design District, a mecca for interior designers and home to dozens of galleries and furniture showrooms. Wynwood, the former warehouse district, has quickly become the standout arts hub of southern Florida. Starting with murals, street art and graffiti, today there are more than 70 galleries and museums housed in abandoned factories and warehouses. This thriving district centres around Wynwood Walls, a collection of murals and paintings laid out over an open courtyard. Wynwood walls is as unique as it is creative. Embellished in everything from life-size murals and graffiti quotes to abstract paintings and larger than life sculptures and although the galleries are significant, Wynwood is an outdoor art exhibit, and some of the best art can be found by simply wandering the streets.

Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
Wynwood Walls
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Wynwood
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Wynwood

Miami is a city of layers, and after visiting the city twice I feel that I have still only scratched the surface. I hope to return one day and explore Little Havana and Wynwood further but also venture to new neighbourhoods, including Coconut Grove.  Miami’s oldest neighbourhood; it is an upscale, leafy neighbourhood with relaxed sidewalk cafes, chic shops and bayfront views that exudes bohemian vibes. Little Haiti, steeped in the complex and rich cultural histories of the Afro-Caribbean immigrants that reside here, the neighbourhood is known for its global restaurants, colourful street murals and fruit stand. Nonetheless, Miami, the Magic City, truly offers something for everyone.