The problem with travel movies

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

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?

Home from home: the importance of 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?

My Big Fat American Road Trip

Way back in 2009, I landed in Los Angeles ready for an adventure. I was nervous, but with 3 USA stamps already in my passport, the country felt strangely familiar. In fact, I had even visited Los Angeles before, but this time, there was one key difference. I was on my own…

…Well, kind of. I was going to be staying with friends and then heading out on a Trek America tour of the West, but that was as solo as my travel was going to get with my parents’ permission.

The itinerary would take me through California, Arizona and Nevada. They say you never forget your first time, so I was determined to make this (almost) solo trip one worth remembering. Here’s what I got up to on my month long adventure:

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

You might be surprised to read this, but I genuinely think Las Vegas was the highlight of my trip. I was definitely in the right demographic – aged 21 so I could drink, aged 21 so I didn’t care how much. Granted, I spent the whole of day 2 immobilised by a hangover, but the night before was worth it.

  • See a show
    The theatres in Vegas are the perfect place to shelter from the heat and soothe that headache. Las Vegas gets more than its fair share of unique performers, but I was more taken by a West End classic – The Lion King. But if that doesn’t take your fancy, why not try Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group or a riqsue cabaret? There’s bound to be something you like!

Bellagio fountain

  • Bellagio fountain show
    Ever since watching Ocean’s 11 (the remake of course – big Brad Pitt fan here!), I wanted to visit the Bellagio, and it did not disappoint. The fountains at the end of the movie are even more moving when you see them in person, and with the water movements set to “Time to Say Goodbye” by Andrea Bocelli, I couldn’t hold back the emotion. The lights, the music, the water… everything was perfect… except I was hungry so my next visit was to…
  • Bellagio buffet
    Wow, wow, wow. I have never seen so much food in one place, all delicately arranged, all tastefully designed. My biggest regret in life was that I had a hangover and paid $40 to eat just one slice of pizza before feeling too sick to continue. And so my recommendation to you, dear readers, is this. If you go to the Bellagio buffet, for the love of god do it on an empty stomach and well before you’ve had too much to drink.

Paris Hotel, Las Vegas

  • Walk the strip and wander through hotels
    My favourite thing to do in Vegas was just wander aimlessly. The heat of the city can make this impossible to do but, lucky for you, this city doesn’t sleep! So that jet lag is no excuse – get your “I can’t sleep because it’s 10am where I’m from” butt outside and wander the strip. My top picks are the Venetian – where you can have a ride in a replica gondola down a replica Venice Canal; New York New York – where you can ride a rollercoaster that whizzes past the Statue of Liberty’s face; and Caesar’s Palace where you can ride a spiral escalator! It’s worth it just for that. Go on, get exploring.
  • Gamble!
    Except don’t gamble, because I can’t be seen to encourage that kind of thing around here.

Grand Canyon

Oh yes… Perhaps USA’s most visited natural wonder, the Grand Canyon is somewhere that photos seriously don’t do justice to. You have to go. Now! Here’s my pick of the bunch of things to do while you’re there:

Grand Canyon sunrise

  • Get there in time for sunrise
    Our TrekAmerica guide did something amazing. She got us all out of bed at 4:30am and tied blindfolds around our heads as she guided us to the edge. No – this wasn’t some kind of ritualistic ceremony, but a fantastic way to help us appreciate the shock and awe of seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time. As soon as our blindfolds were released, we saw it. And it was amazing.

Grand Canyon helicopter

  • Helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon
    I cannot recommend this enough. Back then, I considered it a once in a lifetime experience, and that still rings true. I haven’t been on another helicopter since, partly because I don’t think any others would even come close, but mostly because they’re bloody expensive. Still – that feeling of seeing the Grand Canyon after watching the earth disappear beneath you is something I’ll never forget.

Los Angeles

I’ll be honest – Los Angeles is probably one of the only cities that I wouldn’t make the effort to go back to. I found it grubby, overcrowded and, quite frankly, not very interesting. But, there are some gems to see if you know where to look.

Walk of Fame

  • Walk of Fame, ending up at Mann’s Chinese Theatre
    Like most of my adventures in Los Angeles, you could take or leave it. It’s fun trying to find your favourite star, or the celebrity with the same sized hands as you but, beyond that, the Walk of Fame isn’t that entertaining. However, I did enjoy a guided tour of Mann’s Chinese Theatre (the home of the Academy Awards), where we got to sit in the front row as if we were Oscars nominees. Though be warned – it’s much smaller than they make it look on TV, so you’ll never see the Oscars in the same light again.

Saddle Ranch, Los Angeles

  • Saddle Ranch restaurant, Sunset Strip
    Forgive me. It’s nearly dinner time and I’m hungry, so I couldn’t not mention food, right? And the Saddle Ranch on Sunset Strip is definitely worth a visit. I can’t remember what the food was actually like, or even how the service was, but what I do remember is the experience. I had such a great time talking to the cowgirl waitresses, soaking up the Western atmosphere and having a go on the Bucking Bronco. Yes – they have one dead centre in the restaurant for all to see… I’d recommend having a go before you eat. We tucked into barbecue classics, and by finishing with smores in the back yard, you couldn’t get much more American than that.

Hollywood Sign

  • Hollywood sign (from a distance!)
    You see it on TV and in all the magazines, but is it really that special seeing it up close? No – I don’t think so. I hiked a bit of the mountain to see a massive H, but the real magic is being able to read “Hollywood” in its entirety, and for that you need to be at a distance. The sign isn’t ready for its close up just yet.

Universal Studios

  • Universal Studios
    Yes, it’s tacky and probably way overpriced these days but it’s so much fun. And if you’re a blockbuster movie fan like me, you’ll love it. You can come face to face with Jaws, float down a dinosaur infested river and meet Homer Simpson all in the same place. It’s somewhere I think you should go at least once in your life, and to prove it, I’ve been twice.

San Francisco

Despite the fog, it’s a pretty wonderful city – probably my favourite in the USA actually. It’s got a very different feeling to it than most other cities: it’s quite laid back, eclectic and dare I say it ‘alternative’. I felt more comfortable here than anywhere else, and I can definitely see myself going back.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

  • Golden Gate Bridge
    You can’t not, can you? Perhaps one of the most recognisable attractions in the USA, it’s worth taking your time on this one. I walked across it, drove across it, went on a boat under it, all in order to find its best angle. But, truth be told, it’s pretty epic no matter where you look at it from. I’ve never been so excited to see a bridge before, and I think you’ll be surprised by how excited you get too.

Alcatraz, San Francisco

  • Alcatraz
    I love places with stories, and Alcatraz definitely has a few to tell. That’s obvious from the etchings of despair in the walls, the riotous bullet holes in the floor, and the bent cell bars from failed escape attempts. Despite being abandoned for nearly 40 years, the prison on Alcatraz Island still feels used – as if you’ll turn a corner and stumble across Al Capone in his cell. That’s the beauty of the museum – they’ve left it as close to real as possible, with only a few exhibits and information signs to aid your imagination.

Yosemite

One for you nature lovers, Yosemite National Park does not disappoint. I still look back at the photos and sigh at how beautiful it all is. Those waterfalls… that greenery… the wildlife… It’s a bit of a trek from the major cities in California, but trust me, it’s worth the journey.

Yosemite National Park Camping

  • Camping in the park
    Remember that I was young and so could sleep on the roughest of terrains – but I wouldn’t have done it any other way. My group had so much fun sitting around the campfire making s’mores and drinking Coors Light (I’m sorry – I didn’t understand beer back then!) You can get a surprisingly comfortable night’s sleep if you have the right equipment and are prepared to hide from the…

Wild bear in Yosemite

  • Wild bears!
    We were lucky enough to see a bear just metres from us… actually let me rephrase that. We were lucky enough not to get eaten by a bear just metres from us. I vividly remember the “safety briefing” we were treated to upon arrival, which said “If a bear attacks you, make yourself as big as possible, scream and shout and punch it on the nose. Whatever you do, don’t run.” Thankfully we didn’t need to follow the advice, as we were behind trees when we spotted this beautiful brown bear in a clearing. It was a sight I’ll never forget.

Hiking Yosemite

  • Hiking
    The only way to truly see the beauty of the National Park is on foot. Yosemite is known for its waterfalls, and hiking up from the bottom to the top of a waterfall is really special. Some of the sections are troublesome and a bit scary if you’re not steady on your feet, but there are plenty of warning signs and barriers to keep you safe. Remember – this is America – could you imagine the law suit?!

Route 66

I’ll be honest – a lot of Route 66 is dull. But it’s still pretty cool to be able to say I’ve driven some of it. When we weren’t staring at the open road, we were complaining about the person upfront’s music choices, carefully avoiding the donkeys that roam free or admiring the incredible scenery. Keep your eyes peeled – you never know what you might miss.

Donkeys on Route 66

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Can you remember your first solo travel experience? Where did you go and what did you do? Do you have any more tips to share on west coast USA?

My last impressions of Cuba

After spending two weeks in Cuba, I had formed some pretty mixed opinions. First stepping foot in Havana, I absolutely loved the place, but Maria la Gorda saw me having second thoughts. But what impression did I leave with? What had my time in Cuba taught me about the country that I didn’t already know? Quite a lot actually! Here’s how we spent our last few days in Havana…

It could do with a bit more luxury

Probably a controversial opinion, but I’m a self-confessed hotel snob. I love clean, comfortable, well-equipped hotels, so after staying in some average places outside of Havana, I was in my element to be finishing off the holiday at the Iberostar Parque Central.

We had a great night’s sleep in our huge bed and an amazing breakfast from the enormous selection: cheeses, cold cuts, salads, hot food of sausages, croquettes and vegetables, yoghurts, cereals, pancakes, pastries, tarts, breads, smoothies, champagne, frui… wait a minute. What? Champagne?! Yes, you really can drink free champagne for breakfast. So I did. And here’s the proof.

Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

The facilities were also second to none – there was a stunning rooftop pool with great views of the Capitol and the central park where we spent our last morning in Cuba. There was also a rooftop bar in the modern section of the hotel where we were gifted free drinks on our first night – whoop!

Iberostar Parque Central, Havana

There was even a 24 hour medical centre, which was great because…

Mosquito bites are a pain in the ass (literally)

Bites from Maria la Gorda

My bites from Maria la Gorda had become so irritating that we paid a visit to the medical centre to see if they could do anything. It turned out some of my bites had become infected, so a quick consultation, a few swabs, six medicines and one injection in the bum later, I was on the mend!

Cubans love irony 

On our last few days in Cuba, we also visited the Museo de la Revolución, which is set in Batista’s presidential palace. This is beautifully ironic because Batista was the guy the Cuban revolution was fighting against!

Museo de la Revolucion, Havana

The museum houses a load of random artefacts such as hats, guns, rubber stamps (ooh exciting) and life-size statues of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos. We also read about the people involved in the revolution, and learnt about how things changed once the revolutionaries were in power. The signs and explanations were mostly in Spanish but we survived!

It’s not the best museum I’ve ever visited, but it’s definitely worth a visit if you’re interested in the revolution.

There’s more to the food than fish, rice and beans

If you followed my previous posts around Cuba, you’ll know that fish, rice and beans is the staple diet of most Cubans (and tourists for that matter). We didn’t mind all that much because it’s one of my favourite meals, but it was still nice to have more choice in Havana.

A member of our tour group had told us about a great place along Brasil Street that served the most amazing shrimp. We were dying to see what all the fuss was about, so we walked all along the road trying to find somewhere that matched her description. Close to giving up, we started looking for somewhere else to eat and headed up Brasil Street in the opposite direction. There it was! A tiny looking bar/restaurant split over three floors, no name on the outside, exactly as had been described to us. The shrimps were fantastic, the drinks were delicious and everything was so so cheap! As we left, there were people queuing out the door and we could understand why. I’m afraid we still don’t know the name so you’ll have to find it for yourselves!

Havana restaurant

Look how happy I am!

Another great little find was Cafe de las Artistas. It’s down a quiet street in Old Havana where a few little restaurants have waiters outside trying to tempt you in. It’s definitely worth searching this restaurant out, though, because the service was impeccable, and the food and drink even better (they even offered to make me something not on the menu). It’s a great place to relax and soak up the atmosphere, whilst guzzling down every last mouthful of your cocktail.

Ernest Hemingway had good taste in bars

La Bodeguita del Medio, Havana

When he lived in Havana, Ernest Hemingway had a saying: “Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita”. We wanted to test his theory, so on our last night in Havana, we headed out to El Floridita just around the corner from our hotel. Despite being one of the busiest nightspots in Havana, we managed to grab two seats at the bar and ordered two traditional daiquiris. Yum yum yum. The atmosphere was great, the barmen were attentive and there’s even a statue of Ernest himself propping up the bar. The drinks might be a little overpriced, but a visit here is still a must-do for all visitors to Havana.

Unfortunately, La Bodeguita isn’t nearly as good as Hemingway made it out to be. We visited on our last day in Havana, and even at 12pm the place was packed. Now, the reason it wasn’t great is they fill the bar with very expensive ready made mojitos that just need topping up with rum and soda. This means it’s very much geared towards getting tourists in and out as quickly as possible. The cocktails were still tasty, but there are much better places in Havana for a mojito…

 

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Our Cuban adventure definitely had its ups and downs, but we finished on a definite high. Havana has fast become one of my favourite cities and I’m sure it won’t be too long before we go back.

Have you ever been to Cuba? What impressions did you leave with?