The problem with travel movies

Walk of Fame

Movies could be a great way to see the world. Granted, even better is to see the world with your own two eyes and not through a screen but, recently, cinema has been a huge source of information for me to work out where I want to go next (at the moment, that’s India thanks to the Jungle Book!)

In my opinion, travel movies give a good overview of global travel, but only if you completely ignore the story. Let me explain.

Location trickery

When was the last time you were watching a film, admiring the scenery and thinking ‘I’d love to go there some day’. But wait… what do the credits say? ‘Filmed entirely in a studio’. How disappointing – unless you’re desperate to visit a sound studio in Los Angeles, but I doubt it.

Of course, that’s not always true. You can’t fake sweeping aerial shots over a city or mountaintop, and nor would you want to. This is the best part of a movie for me – that unforgivingly beautiful view that is easy to replicate if you stand in the exact same spot as the camera man.

The stereotypical British man

Travel movies are ridiculed, blasted and criticised for their use of stereotypes. You know the kind…

See a man sheltering from the rain under an umbrella after getting off a bright red bus? You’ll guess he’s in London. Spot a bronzed lady surfing in a grass skirt and coconut bikini? You’ll know she’s in Hawaii.

How many of these things will you actually see when you visit a country? Despite the ‘unreality’ of stereotypes, they’re still used because they make a country easy to recognise. And they’re considered hilarious.

Just don’t expect to meet that stereotypical British man on your next trip to London. I’m afraid he doesn’t exist.

The story behind them

Another thing I’ve noticed from most travel movies is that the main characters tend to travel to run away from something awful – be that a bad relationship, a monotonous life or unrealistic expectations on young women just trying to make their way in the world (Oh, DEEP! Where did that come from?!) Of course, that escapism is a genuine reason people pack their bags and go, but it’s certainly not always the case.

Nearly all of the people I know who travel do it for the sheer love of travelling. Cinema seems to be crying out for a movie that tells that story – if I’ve missed it, please tell me what it is.

Oh, the glamour!

Grotty hostels, food poisoning and mosquito bites rarely make it into the glamorous Hollywood stories, but they’re a very real and very common set of occurrences that happen to most travellers nowadays.

As long as you’re not completely devastated when you realise the reality of travel isn’t all airline upgrades and champagne, you’ll be okay.

The effect of travel

And finally – travellers in movies always love what they do. Travel always makes the protagonist a better person with more awareness of the world, new insights and a more rounded personality.

At least they get one thing right.

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Have you ever visited a country because of a movie? Were you disappointed or impressed with what you saw?

Look out for the next part of my travel movie series where I list my favourite and what I consider to be the best travel movies out there.

Why September is the best month to travel

Where to Travel in September

I used to hate September. When I was a schoolgirl, September saw me suffering from the back-to-school blues. When I started my job, September saw me suffering from the back-to-work blues. But now, I’ve been able to avoid the inevitable back-to-work blues by packing my bags and seeing where the wind takes me.

And that’s what makes September the best month of the year to travel.

Think about it.

The screaming kids are back at school, the tourist crowds have dissipated, and skyrocket prices have given way to last minute deals.

What’s more, September brings some wonderful conditions across the world that makes it even more irresistible…

South African safari

Perfect safari conditions in Southern Africa

South Africa’s dry season runs from May – September and is one of the best times to see wildlife in the national parks. Due to the lack of rain, the animals tend to congregate around watering holes and can’t hide from you behind bushy vegetation. This makes it much easier to spot some of the more illusive species that would otherwise flee at any sign of a tourist’s jeep. Plus with so many people back at work and school, the tracks are much emptier giving you the freedom to roam.

Marrakech in September

Falling temperatures in Northern Africa

Despite still being incredibly warm, Northern Africa sees a drop in temperature over the month of September. This makes countries such as Morocco or Egypt a great choice for travellers who aren’t quite ready to say goodbye to summer just yet. Also, if you’re visiting Muslim countries, September is the month of Ramadan meaning you’re more likely to get a table at the most popular restaurants as the locals abstain from food during the day.

Europe in September

Dry and mild weather in Europe

Europe is at its absolute best in September. It’s the month it’s least likely to rain, which if you’ve ever been caught in a Great British downpour or Croatian thunderstorm, you’ll know is a good thing. And with mild temperatures across a large part of the continent, you’ll still see the benefits of summer without the crowds or having to pay for them. Consider a long weekend in Spain, a few nights exploring the Italian riviera, or go crazy and do a full-on tour of the whole thing!

First chance to catch the Northern Lights in the Arctic Circle

Though not at their brightest, the Northern Lights will start to be seen in September. Plus, it won’t be cold enough for snow and temperatures can still achieve an almost tropical 8 degrees c! And while there’s only about 5 hours of sunshine a day, that still leaves 19 hours to see the aurora borealis. 

Asakusa Tokyo

End of the humidity in Asia

Although September can see some pretty hefty downpours in some parts of Asia (Thailand, I’m looking at you!), the last true summer month also sees the end of stifling humidity across much of the continent. Your best bets are China and Japan, where autumn sets in and you’re treated to bright red leaves in the trees and cooler air temperatures. Honourable mentions too go to India and Sri Lanka, where the monsoons are yet to start. Just be warned that Yala National Park in Sri Lanka is normally closed in September, so you might be better off waiting if you want to see the best of the country’s wildlife.

Spring in Australasia

While most of the world seems to be cooling down in September, Australia and New Zealand are just starting to warm up! Spring brings more sunshine, blossoming plants and flowers and outdoor festivals and events. It’s also a great time to go whale spotting as the beautiful animals migrate from the cold waters in Antarctica to the more temperate waters in Australia. Whale watching is great across most coastal areas of Australia in September, except Victoria!

Canada in September

Fall in Northern America

You’ll have seen photos of the orange leaves, crunchy twigs and malting trees in New England, well September is your chance to see them in real-life. It’s also a great time to visit the states you would otherwise avoid in the height of summer thanks to their blistering heat, as the temperature drops as much as the prices. The jewel in Northern America’s crown during September has to be Canada. The weather in comfortable and the autumnal scenery is even more spectacular than New England.

Machu Picchu

Shoulder season in South America

September is a month of balance in South America. The weather is typically dry and gradually milder, yet being such a vast continent, this can vary dramatically. The peak season for hiking the Inca Trail is over by the time September comes around, and most destinations experience falling prices as its visitors return home to work and school.

Hurricanes in Central America

Hmm.. maybe this is one to avoid.

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Now all we need is for someone to invent a time machine so that we can be in all these places at once…

Where do you like to go in September? Have I missed any highlights?

The Benefits of Learning a Language

The benefits of learning a language

About 40% of the world’s population are monolingual. And that’s genuinely one of the scariest statistics I’ve ever heard. With so many people only speaking one language, how can we expect to understand and be understood by each other?

I’ll admit I used to be one of those people that relied on my mum’s rusty O level French to get me through a weekend in Paris (the most commonly used phrase being “Parlez vous Anglais?”). Yet, as soon as I got to secondary school and was persuaded to learn German, I was hooked. I loved the idea of being able to communicate with another 80.62 million people (that’s the population of Germany dontchaknow) and I felt like a super spy when I overheard German conversations on the street and could decode their secret language. I took my German right through to AS level in college, but then I stopped.

And I don’t know why.

It’s one of my biggest regrets, not keeping it up, and that’s why taking up Spanish as an adult has made me even more determined than ever to become fluent and stay fluent. I’ve now been learning in evening classes for 5 years, I’ve had two private tutors and have twice spent a week in Spain at a Spanish speaking school to get better.

Yet the reasons why I’m learning go far beyond a feeling of self-fulfilment. I’ve listed a few of the many benefits of learning a foreign language below. Some might surprise you, but they’re all sure to get you reaching for a phrase book faster than you can say “Ich lasse das Wasser nicht fleißen wenn Ich mir die Zahne pützen”. Google translate that, my friends!

Learning a language will…

Enhance your travel

If you learn a language and then visit a country that speaks it, not only will you be able to communicate in an emergency, you will also be able to communicate with the locals on their terms. Too many people assume everyone else speaks English and this is frightening. If you really can’t bring yourself to learn Japanese for a one week trip, at least learn how to say please and thank you! The locals will respond so much better to you – even if it’s by giggling at your mispronunciation of certain words.

Give you a brand new list of places to visit and try out your new skills

There’s no better place to learn a language than in the country it originated from. Ever since I started learning Spanish, I’ve been to at least one Spanish speaking country every year. Not only has this allowed me to practise my language in context with people who are less forgiving than my teacher, but also it’s allowed me to visit some beautiful places. This is one of the main reasons I chose Spanish over any other language. It’s widely spoken in Spain, some Caribbean islands, Central America and many countries in South America – all of which are simply amazing to visit. Now, holidays like these have become essential to my learning (at least that’s how I justify the air fare to my husband!)

Help you meet new people

If you learn in a classroom, your fellow students can make great friends as you see each other regularly and have something in common: a love of learning! If you have a private tutor, you never know what you might find out about each other. My tutor and I have a mutual love of the Backstreet Boys, and we were both brave enough to admit it!

Of course, you’ll also meet new people when travelling. You’re much more likely to make friends in hostels if you speak the same language as them, or strike up a conversation at a bar with the barman if you’re both practising each other’s language.

Make you smarter

Believe it or not, this one actually comes with scientific proof! Last year, a study by Georgetown University found that speaking more than one language increases the size of the part of the brain responsible for attention span and short term memory. So, what are you waiting for?!

Improve your English

I’ve studied Spanish grammar in 100x more depth than I ever did in English at school. However, learning about the imperfect subjunctive and pluscuamperfect tenses in Spanish has made me question the use of grammar in my own native tongue. I can honestly say I truly understand English and the weird way it’s put together much better now.

Teach you about a new culture

From reading text books and speaking to native speakers, not only am I learning the nitty gritty grammar, I’m also learning a helluva lot about life in Spain: the things Spaniards like, their Christmas traditions, the way they live… And in the last lesson of each term, we get together to share Spanish tapas and play traditional Spanish games. I wouldn’t have a clue what they were without my college!

Make you much more employable

Speaking another language opens up so many employability doors by demonstrating your capability for broadening your horizons and self-study – things that employers are begging for at the moment. Your dream job may even demand it – who do you think would get the job of a French speaking customer service agent? The guy that flunked out of French at school, or the one who is learning French from scratch in evening classes?

Mean you could live abroad one day

Don’t be that Brit that moves to Spain and expects everyone to speak English to you. By learning Spanish before you go, you would be much better able to integrate with the local community and actually feel like you belong there.

You can understand foreign movies and television

One of my favourite things to do is watch Spanish TV and try and work out what’s going on. Even if I don’t understand every word, the actor’s faces in telenovelas tell you exactly what you need to know. Basically, that guy with the hairy chest has cheated on his wife and his girlfriend is having his brother’s baby*. I always get a huge boost of confidence when I recognise a word or phrase, so not only am I enjoying the series, but learning at the same time! Win win.

*not always true!

Tips for getting started

Now, you’re convinced, but what’s the best way to get started? Thankfully there are loads of different options, and you’re bound to find one that suits your bank balance and lifestyle. No time? Listen to a phrasebook CD on your morning commute. No money? Download a free app. It really is that easy! Here are some other ideas:

  • Spend some time at a school in a native country. I’ve done this a few times now and can thoroughly recommend them. International House schools are all over the world and offer loads of different languages. Spend the morning learning and the afternoon chatting with your new friends… what more could you want?
  • Download apps to learn on the move. Earworms and Duolingo have been recommended to me in the past and could be a great way to get started on your own terms.
  • Buy a phrasebook and CD to read and listen to in your spare time. This can be really useful for generic holiday words and phrases, to help you get confident in communicating in bars and hotels abroad.
  • Find a local college or school that offers evening classes and go along once a week. They’ll set you homework so that you can confirm your learning throughout the week.
  • Get a private tutor by searching GumTree or Craigslist for potentials. I’ve got a private tutor to back up my lessons and it’s done wonders to help me focus on exactly what I need rather than going at the pace of everyone else.

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I genuinely can’t think of a reason why you wouldn’t learn a language… if you can read this, you managed to learn English so you definitely have the ability. Give it a go!

Do you speak any other languages? What are your top tips for learning?

Unusual things to do in London

Unusual things to do in London

London is one of the coolest cities in the world, but it didn’t get that reputation because of its major tourist attractions, oh no! What makes London special is the sheer amount of things you can do off the beaten track, whether that involves eating, drinking or just keeping yourself busy. Here’s my pick of ways to spend a day out in London that you might not find in the guide books. I haven’t been paid to promote any of these places, I genuinely recommend them to people who fancy something a bit different.

Breakfast club for dinner
Forget that cheeky nando’s, you’re about to get a brand new favourite restaurant. Everyone knows that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so why not have it all day? At the Breakfast Club, you can. Tuck into American style pancakes or a good old full English in an old retro style canteen. It’s the keep it cheap, pile it high kind of plate, and it’s ohsogood.

Dinner at the Breakfast Club

Escape room
If getting locked in a room with your brains as the only means of escape sounds like fun to you, you’ll love an escape room. You’ve got an hour to solve brain teasers, find clues and open padlocks before you get locked in and branded a fool. We’ve now done both Sherlock Unlock games, but there are plenty of others out there. Let me know your favourites.

Escape Room

Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium
Do you like cats? Do you like cafes? Do you like cats AND cafes? Well my friends, you’re in for a real treat at Lady Dinah’s. Not only do you get to drink the most delicious coffee and eat yummy cakes while you’re doing so, you get to do it in the company of felines! The cats at the cafe are free to wander and incredibly well looked after, it’s totally up to you how close you get to them. Just don’t be surprised if you get a happy kitty kneading your lap as you slurp those last dregs of coffee. Word of warning: it’s probably not a great place to be if you’re a mouse.

Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium

BBC studio tour
One of the UK’s greatest institutions, the BBC has opened its doors to the public to wander around and feel part of the show. You can spy on journalists playing solitaire from high above the news room, catch a glimpse of actual news readers actually reading the news and even take part in your very own radio drama. It makes a great day out for young and old alike.

BBC Studio Tour

Up at the O2
Most people only get to see it from the ground, (or from above if you’ve seen the opening to eastenders) but now those crazy cats at the O2 have let people walk all over it. Yes, you can now don a climbing suit and climbing shoes, strap yourself into a harness and scale that bad boy. On a clear day at Up at the O2 you can see up to 15 miles, and on a cloudy day you’re still treated to a pretty awesome view of the capital. And at only 52 metres high, it’s one that even the most vertigo-suffering people can enjoy. Just Don’t. Look. Down.

Up at the O2

Bounce
Alcohol only improves your ping pong skills. Don’t you know the Olympic table tennis teams all down a pint before they play?* That’s why Bounce is such a popular night time venue. The bar mixes delicious cocktails with hireable table tennis tables. It makes for a great night out and you’ll never feel more like an Olympic champion as you high five your mates for slamming that ping pong ball into their beer.
*This may not be factually accurate.

Bounce Ping Pong

Sky Garden
London is different to many capital cities in that there are plenty of green, open spaces. Perhaps the most interesting of these isn’t outside at all, but right at the top of the Walkie-Talkie. At 155m up, Sky Garden is certainly London’s highest garden, giving an awesome view of London from the balcony. It’s full of beautiful and interesting plants from all over the world, and there’s also plenty of refreshment opportunities if seeing all that tasty greenery has made you peckish. Tickets are free but must be booked in advance at skygarden.london.

Sky Garden

Treasure hunt
Another great way to explore the city is via treasure hunt. Clues are sent to your phone and you have to answer a question about the area you’re in before receiving the next clue. You can play in teams against the clock, but if you get really stuck, you can text the organisers for extra hints. The Cryptic Covent Caper hunt by Hidden City we did took us from Southbank through the West End to Covent Garden on a 2.5 hour treasure hunt. It taught me more about the city than I ever really cared to learn, but in a good way.

Treasure Hunt, London

Themed afternoon teas
Though they are quintessentially British, afternoon teas are getting a little bit boring. I mean, there’s only so many cucumber sandwiches, scones and macaroons you can eat before going a little loopy (and a lot fat). That’s why themed afternoon teas are a huge trend now, and you can try loads of different styles – American at Bubba Gump, Mad Hatters tea party at Sanderson or, my favourite, Charlie and the Chesterfield. Start with a bright pink fizzy pop, eat always-ending gobstoppers and rip open your Wonka bar to search for your golden ticket. There’s even a creepy Willy Wonka wandering around waiting on you. It will take you right back to your childhood dreams!

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Afternoon Tea

Improv comedy
Go to Spain to watch flamenco, Argentina to watch tango, but what do you come to London to see? Please not Morris dancing! Us Brits aren’t known for our great entertainment, but one thing we do have is a great sense of humour. So why not go to an improv comedy show? We were lucky enough to see Whose Line Is It Anyway? as it hit the West End in 2015 and 2016 and it was genuinely the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s a great way to spend an evening in London if you’ve got one spare. Other improv comedy shows are available.

Improv comedy

Bottomless brunch
Another trend to recently hit the London foodie scene is the bottomless brunch, where you can eat as many croissants and drink as much prosecco as you want… for breakfast. I guess they’re a bit like an upmarket Man vs. Food challenge, except you don’t get your photo on the wall at the end of it. Some can be quite expensive (they have to make their money somehow!) but if you go on an empty stomach and make the most of it, they can be pretty good value. I’ve tried the one at the Roundhouse, which you can read about in more detail here.

Bottomless brunch

Dinerama
I’m a bit worried at how much of this list involves food, but a girl’s gotta eat! Dinerama is a street food market in trendy Shoreditch (though there are others dotted around the city) where you can try some of the best of London eats all under one roof (except there is no roof). Whether you fancy lobster mac and cheese, pizza, burger, or even just a delicious cocktail, Dinerama has got you covered (except there is no roof… Oh wait I’ve already said that).

Dinerama

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How do you feel about non-traditional tourist sites? Do you tend to stick to guide books? What are your favourite things to do in London?

Home from home: the importance of good accommodation

Good accommodation

Picture the scene. You’ve just rocked up to your accommodation after an 18 hour journey. Your bags feel heavier than ever, you’ve not slept for nearly 30 hours, your armpits stink, you’re sweating profusely, you can’t feel your feet, your hair is greasy, your head hurts and you’ve got the worst halitosis imaginable. Now- where would you rather be?

  • Option A – a hostel bedroom you’re sharing with 13 people you’ve never met, where you now have to make your own bed before you can rest your head. The rocky mattress and pillow will dig into your back all night, you won’t get much sleep and those cockroaches are likely to get far too cosy next to you. Oh, and the water’s not working so it’s chewing gum and a shower in a can for you, mate.
  • Option B – a clean, comfortable hotel with air conditioning, running water and free wifi so you can tell your friends you’ve arrived. You’ll sleep like a baby in the cotton wool like mattress, be able to wash off the journey in a shower as big as your garden back home, and then even grab a beer from the mini bar to celebrate.

I’m obviously giving you best and worst case scenarios here, but I, without a doubt, would choose Option B every time.

I’ve stayed in my fair share of grotty places. A dirty, $18 multi-share hostel in a dodgy Manhattan neighbourhood. A campsite at Yosemite where we were warned about the black bears stealing our food, and trained to punch them on the nose if they got too close. A hotel on the very edge of Cuba where we had no running water and I was eaten alive by fleas every night.

Sure, these accommodations enabled me to experience some of the most fascinating places on the planet, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still managed that if I had have slept in a cosy room and soft pillows instead.

I am probably most definitely a hotel snob. I like my creature comforts, and I’m not afraid to admit it. Travellers talk at length about the worst places they’ve ever stayed and then always finish with ‘but that’s part of travel – it wouldn’t have been the same otherwise’. But, if anything, a luxurious hotel enhances your experience of travel.

Hotel Parque Central, Havana

The best hotel I’ve ever stayed in strangely comes from a country not known for its hotels. Cuba. The Parque Central in Havana is pretty damn special. Right in the heart of the city, even the standard rooms are massive, and there are enough facilities to make it a home from home. Or, in our case, even better than home. It was the perfect end to a trip where I was crying out for a proper shower and air con to soothe my poor flea bitten legs. As soon as I stepped foot in that hotel, I felt safe, content, happy and finally on holiday. Plus, they give you champagne at breakfast. A.maz.ing. It turned what could have been a disastrous trip into something incredible, and I truly believe I have the hotel to thank for that.

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What’s the best accommodation you’ve ever stayed in? Do you prefer hotels over hostels over campsites? Why?