Around the World… in Cocktails!

For my birthday this year I’ve decided to celebrate in the best way possible. On a round the world trip! But this isn’t just any kind of round the world trip. I’m doing it all from the comfort of my home in the company of my friends. The world is coming to us… via cocktails!

We will be posting LIVE as we try out different cocktails from our favourite countries, giving you the recipe and our opinions as we go. Expect us to get vastly incomprehensible as we go, and to not remember anything tomorrow morning…

Here’s where our round the world trip will take us:

  • Scotland
  • Russia
  • Thailand
  • New Zealand
  • United States
  • Mexico
  • Brazil
  • South Africa
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • Ireland

And here we go…

  1. Highland Flying – Scotland
    Recipe: Blend 25ml each of Scotch, Kahlua, Orange Juice and Cream with ice and then strain into glasses.
    Verdict: Tasty and a very good start to our round the world trip! A few people commented it tasted like chocolate oranges, or melted ice cream.
    Score: 7/10
  2. Moscow Mule – Russia
    Recipe: Mix vodka with lime juice and ginger beer. Drink!
    Verdict: It’s gooood… The kind of thing you can drink a lot of, and then stand up and realise how drunk you are. Good job we’re only on our second one… 
    Score: 7.5/10
  3. Tom Yam Siam – Thailand
    Recipe: Mix Mekhong (Thai liquor) with Vodka, lime juice, sugar and lots of ice. Garnish with chilli, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf to taste.
    Verdict: Careful, this one has a bit of a kick! It felt like we were drinking curry and definitely transported us back to Thailand with the flavours.
    Score: 6/10
  4. L&P and vodka – New Zealand
    Recipe: Mix L&P and vodka. Simples!
    Verdict: Not strictly a cocktail… but made a refreshing change from all the complicated flavours! I preferred the L&P on its own though.
    Score: 6/10
  5. Margarita – Mexico
    Recipe: Tequiiiiilaaaa, cointreau and lime juice in a glass with salt around the rim.
    Verdict: A very safe choice – my friend Chris has no imagination – but he does know how to make a MEAN margarita. Deeelicious. A firm favourite so far.
    Score: 9/10
  6. The Bee’s Knees – USA
    Recipe: Gin, lemon juice and honey simple syrup served with a lemon slice.
    Verdict: Smells amazing, and tastes like a liquid lemon curd. I’d much rather have this than lemsip when I’m ill!
    Score: 8/10
  7. Caipirinha – Brazil
    Recipe: Muddle limes and sugar, add crushed ice and then pour over cachaca. ‘Nuff said.
    Verdict: Quite drinkable, but we think we used the wrong type of sugar (don’t go too dark!)
    Score: 7/10
  8. African Brew – South Africa
    Recipe: Crushed ice, a scoop of chocolate ice cream, a banana and amarula all blended together. Pour into wine glasses and enjoy 🙂
    Verdict: It’s good, it’s nice. It’s like drinking a dessert and we like it! A few people have started to experience memory impairment. And there has been dancing.
    Score: 9/10
  9. Negroni – Italy
    Recipe: Equal parts gin, sweet red vermouth and campari. Serve with an orange twist. Fall on floor.
    Verdict: It’s strong!!!!!!! Ahhhh it makes me face go funny! Definite mixed reviews around the room – some people quite like it, the rest of us are putting on a brave face.
    Score: 5/10
  10. Agua de Valencia – Spain
    Recipe: A whole bottle of cava(!), a cup of orange juice and then double shots of vodka and gin. Mix it together with ice and imagine you’re in Spain 🙂
    Verdict: I’m biased because this is my favourite drink in the world. I’ll let others write the verdict for this… Chris says: Very refreshing, (much more so than Italy), though we are getting to the part of the evening where if someone shoved a glass of Bisto Gravy laced with Vodka in front of me I’d say it’s the greatest drink in the world. I feel would very much appreciate it even when sober!
    Score: 7.5/10
  11. Kir Royale – France
    Recipe: Creme de Cassis and champagne. On a 1:9 ratio. Easy!
    Verdict: It’s like a fizzy ribena! Except it will get you drunk! We like it!
    Score: 8/10
  12. Irish Eyes – Ireland
    Recipe: Whiskey, creme de menthe and cream (or milk if you’ve run out!) shaken, not stirred, and then poured over ice.
    Verdict: It tastes like polo mints, or like melted mint choc chip ice cream. A very good drink for a date – you don’t even need to brush your teeth! Despite the colour, it’s very drinkable indeed. A great one to finish on. We’re feeling incredibly fresh all of a sudden!
    Score: 8/10

~~~

What’s your favourite cocktail from around the world? 

Confessions of a Nervous Flyer

I don’t like to admit when I’m scared of things – especially not things to do with travel. Self-confessed travellers are meant to be fearless, right? But visiting new countries, learning about other cultures and meeting new people exhilarates me, they don’t scare me. So what’s up?

The truth is, I’m a bit of a nervous flyer. I won’t go so far as to say I’m scared of it, because it completely depends on the day and the flight I’m on. I’m perfectly fine if it’s a smooth take off, smooth cruise, smooth landing, but anything else is enough to get my palms a little sweaty.

With at least 16 flights planned for this year, I decided it was finally time to get over it once and for all. In this post, I will list the reasons I’m nervous, the rough science behind what’s actually happening and then work out some techniques on how to cope. So think of this post as a bit of a self-help guide for me, but I hope it will help you too.

Turbulence

The reason: Turbulence will no doubt appear on every nervous flyer’s list. It’s an odd feeling being in an object 37,000 feet in the air and having it shake, isn’t it? I get a bit nervous the plane is falling out of the sky, but it’s virtually impossible for an aeroplane to be that badly affected by turbulence.

The rough science: Turbulence is no more than a few bumps in the air, just like driving on a bumpy road. Even when knocked off its course, the aeroplane will automatically return to its original position. Your pilots are trained to try and avoid these rough patches to make your flight as comfortable as possible. While it may feel like you’re freefalling, aeroplanes rarely rise or fall more than 10m during periods of turbulence (which is nothing compared to high high you already are).

Top tips:

  1. Leave a cup of water on your tray table and watch it to see how much it moves. You’ll be surprised at how little the turbulence does actually affect the water line.
  2. Keep the window blind up so you can see that the plane isn’t plummeting, but actually maintaining a very constant height in comparison to that beautiful cloud over there.
  3. The best advice I was ever given was to jiggle your body a little when you feel turbulence coming on. This helps to counteract the effects of the shakes, and also gives you something to focus on. Ever since I found this out, I’ve been much less afraid of turbulence.

Take-off

The reason: Genuinely the only reason I am scared of take-off is the Final Destination movie. I’m not sure which one it was, but there’s a scene where an aeroplane has just taken off but immediately explodes and plummets to the ground. And now I can’t get that image out of my head when I take off. Damn you, Hollywood!

The rough science: Your plane is very very very unlikely to spontaneously combust upon take off. Or at any other time for that matter! Aeroplanes will have been checked by airport staff directly before take-off, and are given the equivalent of an MOT before every single journey.

Top tips:

  1. Look out the window so that you can see the plane is climbing, not falling. Plus, in my experience, some countries look even more beautiful from the air than on the ground. You never know what you might miss if you have your eyes closed!
  2. Strike up a conversation with the person next to you while you’re still on the ground. That way, you can focus on the conversation rather than the take-off, and you may even make a new friend

The news

The reason: There have been a few news stories recently about air disasters. Despite my understanding of creative writing, and the fact that fear sells, I have been known to play into the hands of journalists and believe everything they say.

The rough science: Note that in my intro I said there have been a few, not a lot. Because if you think about the 3,000,000 flights that happen everyday, and then think about the 1 you hear about per year, it really puts things in perspective. What are the chances your plane will be the one to go? Too small to even bear thinking about. So don’t.

Top tips:

  1. Make a point NOT to read the stories. All journalists are trying to do is sell newspapers, and they do that because of fear. Don’t give them the satisfaction!
  2. Think of the other things you do in your life, even though journalists tell you not to. Eat bacon? Well apparently that’s not allowed. Flying is no different.

Other people

The reason: Let’s face it. Other people are annoying. I once flew to NYC and could smell smoke every time the dude in front of me went to the toilet. It turned out he had been smoking in the toilets, despite all the warning signs, cabin crew pleas and smoke detectors that were a clear indication that he shouldn’t. He had put us all in danger, just for the fact that he couldn’t wait 8 hours for a cigarette. Other times, I’ve had drunk people disrupting flights, people screaming, people being sick…

The rough science: Unfortunately this is just one of those things. There’s no science behind why people are annoying. Actually – that’s a lie. Isn’t psychology all to do with that? Anyway… it’s too big a subject for me to go into. You’ll just need to put up with annoying people, I’m afraid!

Top tips:

  1. Get an aisle seat so that you can move around/away from the source of the annoyance.
  2. Sit with people you know so you can enjoy their company instead, or focus on a book or a film. 
  3. If there’s someone particularly annoying on your flight, there’s no harm telling the cabin crew about it. They’re there for your safety AND comfort, so you never know what kind of strings they might pull to keep you happy… 🙂 

Security

The reason: Dare I say it… terrorists are a bit scary. But that’s what security is there for!

The rough science: Flying is THE safest form of transport, if you don’t count spinning around in your office chair. But, even that could cause serious injury if you go too fast or bump into someone mid-spin. Just think about the screening you went through on your last flight – the same screening happens to everyone, and it is incredibly thorough.

Top tips:

  1. Feel free to chat to the security staff at the airport about the checks they do. It might put your mind at ease to know how thorough they’re being.
  2. Remember how unlikely it is that anything will happen.

Plane defects/technical faults

The reason: landing gear packing in, engines failing, etc.

The rough science: Remember what I said above about take-off? The same is true for plane defects… your plane will have been given the equivalent of an MOT before every journey, and any tiny little defect will be picked up by experts that know exactly what to look for. Also, your pilots are trained to pick up on anything unusual. They want to get home safely just as much as you do, and emergency landings are a huge part of their training.

Top tips:

  1. There’s an incredible story about how a pilot made a miracle landing in the Hudson River in New York, following a bird strike. Every single one of the passengers and crew survived. If that doesn’t give you faith in your pilots, nothing will!

Random noises

The reason: Planes make an awful lot of noise – there’s that beeping in the cabin, like, the whole time, the huge roar of the engine before take-off, and then a great bit clunky sound when you’re coming in to land. They can only mean one thing – impending death, right?!

The rough science: Absolutely wrong. Those noises are all completely normal, and haven’t you noticed them on every single one of the flights you’ve ever been on? The beeps are generally a signal to the cabin crew that they should be sitting down, or that someone in the cabin wants their attention. The engine noise is just because you’ve got such big engines stuck to the side of your bus to get you to your destination. And the clunky sound is the landing gear coming out from underneath the plane, getting ready to land. Simples.

Top tips:

  1. If there’s a new sound you’re not familiar with, ask your cabin crew. They will be more than happy to tell you what it means and put your mind at rest.
  2. Get some noise cancelling headphones – they really do the world of good and block out the worst of the noise.

Landing

The reason: Landing is actually my favourite part of flying, but I can completely understand why people get nervous of it. After all, you could miss the runway, the pilot could forget to brake, a violent gust of wind could take you off course.

Rough science: In reality, none of those things is going to happen. As I said above, your pilots are trained to deal with all of these things, and there’s always two for extra assurance.

Top tips:

  1. Keep an eye out the window as it helps to know when you’re about to land, so it doesn’t come as a surprise. 
  2. Alternatively, focus on a book or your iPod instead, and you’ll have landed before you know it 🙂 
  3. Remember that landing means you’ve reached your destination and that awesome holiday you’ve been waiting for for ages! Alternatively… it means you’re home safe and sound and you can brag to all your friends about how awesome your trip was and how you totally weren’t scared of the flight

~~~

That about sums up flying for me – a means to an end that can actually be genuinely enjoyable if you think about why you’re doing it. There’s really very little to be scared of, and it can all be put into perspective when you think of the crew that do it day in day out. 

What makes you nervous about flying? Do you have any ‘coping’ techniques or top tips to share?

48 hours in Tokyo

Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world. It’s no surprise, then, that there’s a hell of a lot to see and do – cat cafes, owl cafes, maid cafes, robot cafes… And that’s just cafes! With that in mind, is 48 hours in Tokyo enough to do it justice? And more importantly… Is it worth the 24 hour round trip to get there?

Firstly, let me explain before you think I’m as mad as the inventor of the owl cafe (I still don’t get it…) Every year, my company sends a few of its staff away on an all expenses paid holiday to say thanks for their hard work. This year, people wanted to go somewhere a bit different from their usual Cancun and Vegas party type holidays and chose Tokyo. Not wanting us to be out of the office for too long, we did it over a long weekend – hence the 48 hours.

We had an awesome itinerary planned that would pack a lot of the main sights in, but was I left wanting more? I’ll let you decide:

Thursday
15:00 We arrived in Tokyo airport after a 12 hour flight from London. It was our first time flying Japan Airlines and apart from the man sat next to me that complained to the air steward that my colleague and I were making too much noise, it was pleasant enough. Just for the record… we were most definitely talking at a normal volume – he was just expecting the flight to be silent!
Despite a bit of a kerfuffle at customs when one of our group tried to unknowingly smuggle in an acorn, everything went smoothly. We were met by our tour guide and coach driver in Arrivals, and were then taken to our hotel in Shinjuku.

17:30 Our hotel was incredible. We stayed at the 5* Keiyo Plaza Hotel in Shinjuku, which is primarily a business hotel but I guess we were there on business?? We had a couple of hours to settle in, shower and admire the view out the window of our 45th floor room.

Misono Teppanyaki restaurant, Tokyo

19:30 The whole group met in the hotel lobby for dinner. We had a whole teppanyaki restaurant to ourselves on the top floor of a Shinjuku skyscraper, where we all sat on the floor around a teppanyaki grill watching skilled chefs cook up fried vegetables, scallops, red snapper, lobster and the biggest steak I’ve ever seen. Everything was washed down with Asahi beer and sake. The whole experience was a fantastic way to start our trip.

22:30 It was back to the hotel bar for a few drinks before I finally admitted jet lag defeat and headed to bed at midnight. Some of my colleagues were out clubbing until 5am the next day! No idea how they managed that…

Friday
8:30 I allowed myself a bit of a lie in before getting ready for our full day of sightseeing. There are 4 different hotel restaurants where you can eat breakfast – some typically Japanese and some Western to keep everyone happy. I tucked in to my usual holiday breakfast of whatever I can fit on my plate (or two) before meeting the bus and our tour guide.

Asakusa Tokyo

10:00 Our bus drove us to Asakusa – the oldest temple and one of the most popular tourist spots in the city. Unaware of the Japanese holiday we had just interrupted, we were shocked to see so many people crammed into the temple complex. The temple itself is a beautiful sight, and probably my favourite place in the whole of Tokyo. Our guide told us all about the history of the temple and then showed us some Buddhist rituals that we could join in with. After that, we had 45 minutes free to take photos and explore the sprawling markets for souvenirs.

12:00 Lunch! Most of the hungover group was dreading this part of the day… Raw fish and dumplings on a queasy stomach? I, however, couldn’t have been more excited. I love trying new foods, especially if they are ‘native to the country I am visiting. I feel it gives such an insight into the ordinary lives of others, right? And I often wonder what visitors must think of British people when they try our food.
We (some of us) tucked into sashimi, dumplings and ramen served by smiling waiters that wondered what on earth they had done to deserve us as guests.

Tokyo Skytree

13:00 We met the bus again to take us to Tokyo Skytree – a 634m tall structure with a viewing platform at the top where you can see over all of Tokyo and (if you’re extremely lucky) as far away as Mount Fuji. The view really put perspective on the size of the city and made me wonder whether we were really doing it justice.
Because of the national holiday, the queues back down to the bottom were huge, meaning we didn’t get long at the top, but we still managed to get all the way round once and were satisfied we had spotted everything we wanted to.

Maiddreamin' Cafe, Tokyo

15:00 In need of a rest after such strenuous activity (I’m joking) we headed to Akihabara to visit… a maid cafe! Seriously, you can’t come to Tokyo without visiting some kind of weird cafe.
We had the whole of Maiddreamin booked out for drinks and a private show (that makes it sound really dodgy, but I promise it’s not!) of maids talking in high-pitched squeals at how cute everything is. Their drinks and foods are decorated with animal faces drawn on with sauce, so I couldn’t resist an ice cream float made to look like a cat.

Maiddreamin' Cafe, Tokyo

The show was… Interesting. The girls sang teenybopper songs on a stage with pink flashing lights. They even grabbed some of the older guys in our group and got them to prance around with them. I loved it!

17:00 Time for our tour to finish! We headed back to our hotel via Shibuya where we saw a huge number of people crossing the famous pedestrian intersection. I remember last time I was in Tokyo, I saw a total of 20 or so people doing it, which wasn’t nearly as impressive. Today, with it being a holiday, there must have been hundreds, if not thousands. Great to see.

Tempura restaurant, Tokyo

18:00 Back at the hotel, we had a free night to spend as we wished. I have an old friend in Tokyo that met me at the hotel before we headed out on a night to see what Japanese people do in the evenings. She works in Shinjuku so knew the area quite well. She took me to a restaurant nearby that was famous for its tempura. I am famous for my love of tempura! It was perfect. The tempura was served individually on a stick, and each piece was different. We must have tried about 8 each (they’re surprisingly filling!) – prawn, okra, cream cheese and seaweed (this was AMAZING), some kind of omelette, fish, baby squid, and I wish I could remember the rest!
All around me were friends and family chatting happily in Japanese while tucking into their meal. This shows the benefit of having friends all over the world- there is no way in hell I would have stumbled across this place, and if I had, there would be no way of deciphering the menu. My friend made it possible, and that’s awesome.
When our bellies were full of tempura and beer, we visited an arcade to re-enact what we did when I last visited Tokyo. We played a drumming game that’s a bit like guitar hero but with big Japanese drums, and then went to a photo booth where you can decorate your pictures and turn yourselves into anime characters! It was so much fun, and even better to do it with a local.

23:00 Bed time. I know, I know, I should have been partying, but I had a very early start in the morning and I wanted to be fresh for it.

Saturday
5:30 Wake up!! Today was a free day, and what do you do if you only have 48 hours in Tokyo? While most of the group headed into the centre to explore some more, a like-minded colleague and I were off to… DISNEYLAND!

6:30 We were already in a taxi and feeling like children on Christmas morning. We had asked our taxi driver to take us to DisneySea – a separate theme park only found in Tokyo that is dedicated to rides and characters centred around the theme of water (pirates don’t count apparently, gutted.)

DisneySea, Tokyo

8:00 The park opened and we headed in. We spent the day going on rides, meeting characters and not understanding anything that was going on. We only counted 7 or 8 other western tourists while we were there, so if you want to be immersed into Japanese life, go to Disneyland. Honestly! That explains why none of the cast members spoke English or why there were no subtitles on any of the rides! We had to guess what was going on in a magic show and use the locals around us as a cue for when to laugh. It was actually really funny 🙂

13:00 We ate lunch in a New York diner and found it fascinating to see what their choice of ‘American’ dishes would be. Still, the food was delicious and kept us going for the rest of the day. There were a few rides we didn’t manage to go on because it was just so busy. Instead, we were quite happy to finish off in the gift shops and explore the shopping precinct outside the park.

15:00 We took the metro back to central Tokyo and headed to our hotel to get ready for the night’s festivities. The canny ones among you will have noticed that I’m over my 48 hours now, but I’m flying home first thing tomorrow morning, so it’s only a little over…

Tokyo boat cruise

17:00 With the group all glammed up, our bus took us down to the river to meet our private boat. It was a traditional long boat with Japanese lanterns down the side that took us down river all the way to Rainbow Bridge, passing Tokyo Skytree and hundreds of other skyscrapers all magically lit up. It was a beautiful sight!
While we were on board, we were served more food than I care to remember: sashimi, salads, tempura, miso soup… And it just kept coming! The beer and champagne was flowing when one member of the group spotted a karaoke machine in the corner… Uh oh! People sang their favourite songs, clearly preparing for our night of karaoke at a club later on.

22:00 Our boat trip finished back where it started, and we made our way to Rapponghi for a wild night ahead. We were allowed in! We had VIP wristbands giving us entry to private karaoke rooms where we sang the night away to classics like Livin’ On A Prayer and Born In The USA. The club was full of young locals who treated us like rock stars- everyone wanted to hold our hands and dance with us, and we even had bouncers follow us across the dance floor to make sure we didn’t attract too much attention. It was all a bit… weird, but fun all the same.

Sunday
02:00 Some people stayed out until the club closed and even beyond that. But, knowing I had an early flight, I was on my way at 2am – heading to my room to pack.

06:00 It was an early start for all of us to make our morning flight home. Leaving early last night definitely paid off – most of my group was hungover on the flight so I bounded up to them with a cheery ‘Good morning!’ that just might have made it worse. Mwahaha.

11:00 At the airport, we had enough time to buy some last minute souvenirs before boarding our 12 flight back to London and onward journey.

48 hours is rarely enough to do anywhere justice, and in Tokyo’s case, 48 hours in Tokyo was a bit of a stretch. Luckily I had been before, otherwise I would have passed up Disneyland to see more of the sights and local haunts. Despite the lack of time, we managed to cram a lot into our trip and, like any decent city, Tokyo left us wanting more. All in all, I wouldn’t recommend such a short stay, but if you’re not paying for it, then why would you say no?

~~~

Have you ever been somewhere that you wished you could spend more time at? What’s the smallest flight:holiday ratio you’ve ever experienced? Was it worth it?

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48 hours in Tokyo

How to survive your first day back at work

Everyone knows the worst part of going on holiday is coming home. Worse still is going back to work!

You’ve just spent two weeks out of the office on a beach/city/adventure break (delete as appropriate), where the hardest thing you had to do was decide whether you want beer or a cocktail with your dinner. You now have to drag yourself out of bed at 6am and make your way to a building where you’ll sit like a zombie in your jetlagged state for the next 8 hours. It’s tough, I know. I’ve been there many times.

Though I don’t always follow them myself, here are my 9 handy tips on how to survive your first day back at work. You’ll be back into the swing of things in no time 🙂

  • Book your next holiday before you get back. And if you can set your out of office on a delay, do it now. It will mean you have something definite and make you feel like the end is already in sight!
  • Go out for lunch. Treat yourself to a nice meal in a local restaurant, or something different from that café down the road. Get out of the office for a bit – go for a walk, go for a run, just anything to get you away from your desk
  • Before you go, give people plenty of warning of when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. With enough warning, your colleagues should remember not to send you loads of emails while you’re away so there won’t be stacks of things to come back to…
  • …But if there are, prioritise the things in your to do list so that you’re not completely rushed off your feet. Remember you’re only one person and you can’t do everything in the time you’re paid to do it. Focus on the most critical stuff, and work out what can be left for another day or pass on to someone else.
  • Get your head down and focus on something to get through the day quicker, but try not to do too much or you’ll completely destroy that nice, relaxed you that you’ve built up while away.
  • Talk about your holiday! Most of your colleagues will want to know what you got up to and see pictures. You could even bring back some airport chocolates or sweets from the country you visited to make them feel involved. But choose wisely who you talk to about your holiday – don’t tell all your awesome stories to the first person you see. Instead, spread them out because a lot of people will ask. Avoid the office grump – they might make you feel even worse about coming back!
  • Plan something nice after work so that you have something to look forward to in the evening. This will keep you going throughout the day and mean you’re not just thinking about work.
  • Try and spend a day at home before going back to work (if your holiday allowance can handle it!). This will give you time to get some rest, tidy away your things and do the laundry – the things you would otherwise have to do after work.
  • Bring back a souvenir to keep on your desk to remind you of your holiday. I have a lucky cat that I brought back from Japan, and it brings back so many lovely memories every time I look at it.
  • Remember your holiday memories with happiness that you experienced them, not sadness that they’re gone.

~~~

Even though going back to work can be tough, it won’t kill you – it just means you’re one day closer to your next adventure! But, with these tips, it will be easier than ever.

How do you survive your first day back at work? Do you have any other tips to share?

The Best of Sri Lanka

A week ago today, we returned from one of the most beautiful countries on earth – Sri Lanka. When we first told people where we were going, we were met with mostly confused responses – “Isn’t Sri Lanka just a rubbish version of India?”, “Are you going for the beaches?”, “Is Sri Lanka still really dangerous?” “Is there even anything to do there?” No, no, no and YES!

Sri Lanka is a misunderstood country thanks to its pretty turbulent past and recent civil war. But now that the troubles are over, it is still a relatively untouched paradise that feels like the majority of tourists in the country are its own residents. We were attracted by its stunning countryside, tropical climate and friendly people, but mostly because of its endless list of things to see and do.

Here’s what we got up to on our 10 day tour with On the Go Tours (who I very highly recommend by the way!)

We climbed a 200m high rock in the searing heat at Sigiriya

Sigiriya

Said to have been home to a King who murdered his father to take the throne, Sigiriya is an ancient fortress at the top of a 200m high rock. Thousands of visitors scale the 1200 steps to the top every day and, despite the terrifying climb, I was determined to be one of them.

There is a rather flimsy looking staircase winding its way around the huge rock, but the Sri Lankans leap up without a care in the world. Our guide even completed the climb in flip flops! Desperately clinging to Tim in front of me, I slowly reached the top and can assure you that every step is worth the effort.

Ruins of the King’s palace are still visible on the rock’s level top, but the real reward for your efforts are the views. You can see for miles in every direction, and Sri Lanka is a treat for the eyes no matter where you look.

We got spiritual in Polonnaruwa and Dambulla

Buddhism is the most popular religion in Sri Lanka, with Buddha images and temples on every corner. Our favourites of the bunch were at Polonnaruwa and Dambulla in the centre of the island.

Polonnaruwa

Polonnaruwa is an ancient royal city that has now become a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to the ruins of a palace, temples and other Buddhist relics. We had a guided tour of the site, including the Buddha images impressively carved out of a single rock face at Gal Vihara. The whole site is covered with monkeys – both grey langurs and macaques live in the area, and we even saw a fight between the two tribes as they tried to defend their land from each other.

Dambulla Rock Temple

The Dambulla rock temple is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, consisting of 5 caves filled with Buddha images, figurines and paintings of historical scenes. Being a religious site, we needed to take our shoes off to walk across the rock surface that had been baking in the sun. We were all hopping about madly as it was so hot! For me, the most spectacular part of the temple was the panoramic view from the top where we could see as far as Sigiriya.

We ate like a local in Kayanwala

One thing to be aware of is that, as a western tourist, you might get treated a bit like a celebrity. This was no more apparent than in Kayanwala when we visited a local lady to have lunch in her mud brick home. On the way to the house, we crossed a lake in a canoe where a family were having their daily bath. In between shampoos, they stopped to wave at us and looked like they had just met the Queen when we all waved back. The little things, eh?

Traditional Sri Lankan lunch

At the house, the lady gave us a quick demonstration of how she cooked our feast of 10 dishes on one tiny stove. It was very impressive, and really made us think about whether we really need all our cooking utensils and dishwasher. But, yes we do! The food was all absolutely fantastic – we had curry, dahl, fried fish, pickles, rice, fresh fruit and a weird vinegary curd yoghurt with sickly sweet syrup. It’s all the rage out in Sri Lanka, and I was the only one in the group that actually liked it!

We learnt about Sri Lankan traditions in Kandy

Kandy

Kandy is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site – it seems Sri Lanka is full of them! The city is the second largest in the country, and is set around a central lake that makes it a really beautiful place to visit.

Temple of the Tooth, Kandy

It is home to the Temple of the Tooth, which is said to contain one of Buddha’s teeth – only you can’t see it as it’s hidden in seven golden caskets to protect it. While we were visiting the temple, we watched some Buddhist rituals including offering food to the monks and traditional drumming in front of the temple’s inner chamber.

Sri Lankan music and dance

We saw the same kind of drumming again at a show of Sri Lankan music and dance later that night. There were 20 or so performers including drummers, plate spinners, dancers, acrobats and fire walkers, all wearing traditional costumes. It was really good to see, and certainly gave us an insight into the more cultural side of Sri Lanka.

We took a train from Kandy to Nuwara Eliya 

Sri Lanka train

No visit to Sri Lanka is complete without a journey on the railway, and we were lucky enough to spend four hours staring out at the most spectacular scenery from our 2nd class train cabin. As the train climbed higher into the mountains, we saw beautiful waterfalls, tea pickers collecting tea leaves in the plantations and passengers hanging out of the doors at the back of the train. It was such a great experience.

We went back to the Victorian era in Little England, Nuwara Eliya

There’s obviously quite a lot of English influence in Sri Lanka, thanks to its British rule dating back to the 1800s. The influence is really obvious in Nuwara Eliya – a town high up in the Sri Lankan hills that was founded by a British man in 1846. Because of its cooler climate, it was perfect for British colonialists who wanted somewhere to play cricket, drink tea and ride horses.

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Nowadays, it has retained most of its British architecture, including the Grand Hotel where we were lucky enough to stay the night. There’s not much to the town itself except for a tudor style Post Office and green Victoria Park. We used the town as a base to explore the surrounding areas, full of tea plantations and a beautiful waterfall in nearby Ella Gap.

We survived some hairy journeys across the country 

Grand Hotel, Nuwara Eliya

Drivers in Sri Lanka are nutters. No matter whether we were travelling in a tuk tuk or on our own tour bus, we were always a bit surprised to get to our destination without crashing. Cars overtake each other in front of oncoming traffic, and their horns are used far more often than their brakes. I was woken up from car naps so many times when our driver broke too hard or beeped the car in front to get them to move over. Despite all this, road rage was really uncommon and we always stayed in one piece.

We saw the wildlife where they belong (in the wild) at Udawalawe, Yala and Bundala National Parks

This might surprise you, but Sri Lanka has wildlife and safari opportunities to rival Africa. Seriously. Ignoring the Elephant Orphanage, which is more theme park than sanctuary (more about that here), wildlife is very well cared for in Sri Lanka. National Parks are staffed by conservation experts, and other than the safari jeeps that cart eager wildlife spotters around, the animals are allowed to roam completely free.

Elephant in Yala National Park

While on game drives in no less than three National Parks, we saw elephants, monkeys, crocodiles, water buffalo, wild boar, jackals, hundreds of birds, tortoises, deer, iguanas and mongooses. In Yala National Park, we were also lucky enough to see an illusive leopard leap up and down from a tree – amazing.

We stared at the Indian Ocean along the south coast

Yala, Sri Lanka

Don’t panic all you beach lovers out there – Sri Lanka will definitely keep you happy too. As an island in the Indian Ocean, it has some of the most beautiful coastline in the world. Our hotel in Yala was right on the beach with views you just can’t help but stare at.

Whale watching in Mirissa, Sri Lanka

Mirissa is a small coastal town that has grown in popularity recently, thanks to it offer of watersports and other activities. Did you know that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see blue whales? They migrate across the Indian Ocean between December and April, so we went at the perfect time to see them… and we did! We managed to spot a 25m long blue whale, complete with blowhole spurt and tail flip. Just incredible.

We toured the capital city of Colombo

When we returned to Colombo, we had a half day tour of the Sri Lankan capital before heading back to the UK. Most visitors use Colombo as a transit town to get to their real destination, but there are some treats to be had around town too. That said, our half day tour did seem to be enough for us!

 Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, Sri Lanka

We visited the beautiful Gangaramaya Buddhist temple, full of Buddha images and vintage cars (random, huh?), wandered around the Independence Memorial Hall and drove past the Town Hall – built in the style of the Capitol Building in Washington.

As well as all of its cultural sights, Colombo is a great place to eat and drink. The Dutch Hospital is a lively area, home to one of the best restaurants in the world – Ministry of Crab – as well as plenty of modern Sri Lankan eateries like Semondu (our pick of the bunch). You can also find some cool bars and a tourist shop to keep visitors like me happy. What a great way to spend our last night in Sri Lanka 🙂

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I genuinely can’t recommend Sri Lanka enough. Go now to take advantage of its peace and beauty while you still can! 

Have you ever been to Sri Lanka or is it on your bucket list? What would you most like to see if you went?