Tag Archives: Australia

My travels in 2009

2009 was a pretty good year for me as far as travelling is concerned – I managed to spend 289 nights outside the UK, and visited 17 countries (beating the 8 I went to in 2008, my previous best). I’ll save a full round-up until I finish my round the world trip in March, but for now here’s a nice little montage of my favourite photo from almost every country I visited in 2009, kindly created for me by Matt.

Featured photos (from top to bottom left to right) are:
UK – London in the Snow (January)
France – Skiing in Les Arcs (March)
Guatemala – Indigenous woman on the streets of Antigua (May)
USA – Art Deco Miami (June)
Bolivia – The Salar de Uyuni (September)
Australia – Kata Tjuta at sunset (November)
Peru – Sunrise over the Cordillera Huayhuash (August)
Chile – Grafitti in Valparaiso (October)
New Zealand – Jumping on the Tongariro Crossing (October)
East Timor – Beware the crocodiles on Baucau beach (December)
Belgium – Antwerp Docks (February)
Mexico – Mazatlan beach (March)
Honduras – Utila beach (June)
Colombia – Fruit sellers in Cartagena (July)
Easter Island – Moai (October)
Indonesia – Sunset over Senggigi beach, Lombok (December)

The only countries missing are Norway (from January, where I forgot my camera), Argentina (from October, where my camera was broken), and Switzerland (from March, which was just a brief stopover on my way to France).

Sadly I won’t be doing quite so much travelling in 2010 – but with Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Burma & France to come, as well as the Philippines (where I am now) and Malaysia (where I was earlier this month) there’s still lots to look forward to. Stay tuned for further installments – and click here if you want a look back at any more of my photos.

Advertisements

Australia & New Zealand Round-up and Budget

I have some mixed feelings on the 28 days I spent in Australia & New Zealand.

Obligatory Sydney Harbour shot

I might as well start with the positives. First off, it was really nice to catch up with quite a few friends I hadn’t seen since they left the UK – Chris in Auckland, Matt in Melbourne, Gen in Perth, and Chris, John & Ollie in Sydney, especially as it could be ages before I get to see them again. Getting to do the Tongariro Alpine crossing was a real highlight too, as it certainly lived up to its billing as one of the world’s best day hikes. I’m so glad too that my round the world ticket gave me the chance to see Uluru & the red centre, something I may not have bothered with otherwise, and was one of the real highlights of the trip so far. My stomach was also very pleased to get to catch up on so many of the English foods I’d been missing since I’ve been away (amazing as some of the foods I’ve had while away, I still can’t stop myself getting homesick for certain foods. Decent bacon, especially). Possibly best of all was getting to spend nearly two weeks with Matt in Melbourne, not doing all that much by the way of touristy stuff, instead just settling back into city life (and Melbourne is definitely one the best cities in the world) and recharging my batteries after doing so much over the past seven months.

Newtown, my favourite part of Sydney

But despite all the plus points, it did feel like a bit of a letdown after having such an incredible time in Latin America. The biggest factor in that was the fact that the two countries really are way too much like home in many respects. While that was comforting in some ways, one of the things I’ve loved most about my travels is experiencing a range of very different cultures, and to be honest, the antipodean culture was nowhere near as exciting. Another surprise was the other backpackers I met. In Latin America, I met so many amazing people, many of whom I hope to stay in contact with and see again when I get home. Whereas, especially, I really didn’t get on with any of the travellers I met in Oz. Maybe I was just unlucky, but I did find there to be something quite different about the type of people who have chosen to spend a year in a country like Australia (rather than Asia or Latin America) – they didn’t seem to be as adventurous, or open-minded, or interesting to talk to. Like I said, maybe I was unlucky and didn’t meet the right people, but it made me realise how much the company of great people makes to my enjoyment of a place. The final downside was one that I always knew was going to happen – the cost. As developed countries, they were always going to be expensive. With the pound being as week as it, it was even more so, and worse so than I’d feared. In just 1 month I managed a far bigger overspend than I’d managed in seven months in the Americas. Whoops. Oh well – let’s just hope I manage to claw some of that back in (much cheaper) Asia.

Here are those scary average daily spend numbers anyway – accommodation & food & drink costs are easily the highest yet (even moreso than my three days in the USA), and the others are all at the top end of what I’ve been spending so far.
Accommodation: $25.52
Transport: $13.18
Tours: $15.05
Miscellaneous purchases, internet & phone calls: $11.62
Food & drink: $41.54
Total: $106.92

And on to the usual round up of some other numbers. We have a new form of transport thanks to Melbourne’s trams (why on earth do all cities not have these? Trams rock)
Buses: 19
Trains: 18
Trams: 20
Flights: 5
Cars: 7
Beds: 10
Laundry: 5
Phone calls: 4
Postcards: 4
Beaches: 6
Monoliths: 1
Canyons: 1
Volcanoes: 1
Deserts: 1
Mudpools: several
Pies & bacon sarnies: I lost count quite early on with this one, to be honest

And finally the people I shared overpriced (and undersized) beers with. All the Aussies were great. Most of the hostel brits – not so much. I also got to meet my first people from Malaysia & Hong Kong too.
Australia: 23
UK: 20
Germany: 3
New Zealand: 3
Hong Kong: 3
US: 3
Malaysia: 1

And so the third leg of my trip ends, and my next stop, South East Asia, is the final one, which is rather a scary thought. How did that happen so quickly?

You can see all my photos of Australia here and all the ones from New Zealand here.

Sculpture by the Sea

I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Sydney before, so there wasn’t a lot I wanted to see that I hadn’t already. But there was one thing that stood out that I wanted to give a go – the annual sculpture by the sea exhibition. It’s a huge selection of public sculpture, much of it site-specific, sitting all along the cliff walk between Bondi and Tamarama beaches (which is a walk worth doing at any time of the year, even without sculptures, especially as I reckon Tamarama is much nicer than Bondi anyway).

There must have been well over a hundred pieces in total – and with that number there are bound to be hits and misses. But luckily the hits outweighed the misses, and it was a lovely way to spend a morning before ending up at Bondi for lunch and a dip on the sea on my last day in Australia.

Some of my favourites were sitting in the sand on Tamarama beach itself – including a rather disturbing giant baby, and a giant pink diamond. Elsewhere I loved the series of fake directional signs (done so well that they seemed to be ignored by most people wandering around the exhibition) that were dotted around along the path.

Here’s a selection of some of my favourites. It’s finished now for the year, but if you happen to be in Sydney next November, it’s well worth checking out.

You can see all of my photos of the exhibition here.

Three days in the Red Centre: Kata-Tjuta & Kings Canyon

Uluru is the one that gets all the worldwide fame and attention, but even from the plane coming into the area, I could see that Kata Tjuta looked like it could be equally impressive. Whereas Uluru is a giant monolith, Kata Tjuta is a series of huge dome-shaped rocks that were formed around the same time – and are in fact a fair bit bigger in terms of area and quite a bit higher too. Between the domes are a series of narrow valleys, and I was looking forward to the Kata Tjuta sunset viewing much more than the equivalent at Uluru – mainly because rather than just looking at the sunset we’d actually have the chance to walk through the most famous, the valley of the winds.

Kata Tjuta (aka The Olgas)

Sadly though, I hadn’t done my research on the area properly, as I’d arrived at one of the hottest times of year – and in the narrow valleys, the temperature gets even higher than the already pretty hot surrounding area. On the day we got there, it was forecast to be close to 50 degrees in the valley – and so it was closed off to walkers, so we just got to see the start of it. I was gutted.

The domes up close

So, after another disappointment, it was time to head back a bit to see the sunset. And this time, as we settled down in the viewing area with a glass of champagne, there was no letdown. As the sun went down, the rocks were lit up such a bright red they almost looked like they were glowing. It was absolutely stunning, and way more impressive than the Uluru equivalent – and not just because of the colours. The multi-domed shape of Kata Tjuta is much more impressive-looking in my opinion.

Kata Tjuta sunset

Kata Tjuta at sunset

Day three was yet another early start as we headed off on the long drive to Kings Canyon, a couple of hundred kilometres away on the way to Alice Springs. My only knowledge of the place is that it was the setting for the ‘cock in a frock on a rock’ scene from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – but that was enough to know that I couldn’t come to the area without seeing it.

There are two main options for seeing the canyon – an easy walk upstream to see the canyon from inside, or a longer walk around the canyon rim, which the guidebook describes as quite strenuous (which was further unlined by the fact we had to sign a rather scary release form by the tour company before we started!). But really – if you’re moderately fit, it’s really not that hard at all (again, the forty degree-plus temperature is the main challenge, but there’s plenty of time for a slowish pace, and plenty of stops, so with enough water it’s no problem).

Kings Canyon

The toughest bit of the hike is a very steep uphill section right at the start, but with that out of the way it soon got quite easy, and the views from the top make all those steps totally worth it. The rocks round the canyon are all red, and there’s all kinds of cool rock formations of different kinds on the way round. Standing on the canyon rim itself (although not right on the rim – it can be quite crumbly in places, and there are some huge overhanging bits you can be standing on without realising) gives fantastic views across the narrow gap to the other side (and it’s the perfect shape for some fantastic echoes, which was great to play around with). It’s a beautiful spot, with far fewer crowds than the rock, and well worth the long day trip from the rock to get to, as it’s just as beautiful as Uluru & Kata Tjuta.

Jumping looked a bit risky here...so just a little balancing act this time

I’d been asleep on the long drive there, so the way back really gave us the opportunity to see the landscapes around, and if anything this was just as much of a highlight for me. Not because there is anything to see – in fact the whole thing that stood out for me was the sheer lack of anything. For hundreds of kilometres, there is almost nothing, just red earth, scrub-like plants and small trees, and the odd farm. Coming from a rather small, very crowded island, I found the vast emptiness of the centre of Australia stunning. If I return to the country for a fourth time, I’d love to make a long road trip through the centre of the country, there really is something about the place I find strangely compelling. Along the way, the driver gave us a long and fascinating explanation of the history of the area, on the early pioneers, through to gold-prospecters and farmers, which really brought the place to life.

Final stop on the way back was a viewing point on the highway to look across to the area’s third huge rock formation – and one that I’d never heard of – Mount Connor. It’s a huge mesa (table-top mountain), much bigger than Uluru or Kata Tjuta, but like them rising straight out of the flat desert landscape. It was hard to really appreciate it from that kind of distance, but it looked pretty impressive and if I had more time in the area I’d have definitely given it a closer look (it turned out to look even more impressive as I flew over it the next day on the way to Sydney).

On making it back to the hostel, I walked up a nearby sand dune to get one last look at the rocks at sunset – and you know what, after paying all that cash for expensive sunset viewings of Uluru & Kata-Tjuta, I was treated to the best sunset of the lot right there. Whereas the sunset tours place you with the sun setting behind you, so you can see the rocks changing colours, with this angle, I got to see the sun set behind Kata Tjuta, with the setting sun lighting the sky a beautiful golden yellow, with the huge domes appearing in profile. And all for free.

Sunset behind Kata Tjuta

Despite the huge cost and the few slight disappointments, ultimately I’m so glad I made the effort to get there. The rocks in particular are really unique sights, and the experience of being in the red centre was one that made me just want to go back for more.

This post is part two of my account of my three days in the red centre of Australia. You can read part one (about Uluru / Ayers Rock) here.

You can see all of my photos of the area here.

Three days in the Red Centre: Uluru

“Why would you want to go all that way just to look at a rock granny?”

is apparently what the granddaughter of a Scottish woman I met on the way to Uluru said to her before she left home. I must admit I was worrying the same thing. After all, it’s a very long flight from Perth to spend what I knew was likely to be the most expensive three days of my trip…just to see a series of rocks.

On arriving at Yulara (the only place to stay if you want to be near the rock), I checked into my obscenely expensive ($36 per night), twenty bed dorm, rushed straight out to book my tours (on the bright side at least I managed to wangle myself a nice discount from the nice lady at AAT Kings thanks to it being my birthday that day), and then hopped straight onto a bus to see the famous Uluru sunset.

After a short drive, we arrived at the sunset viewing area, sat down to enjoy some red wine, and waited for the dramatic colour show to start. Or so we thought. What instead happened, was that it went from a dull brown colour to a dullish purpley colour.

Uluru Ayers Rock

Before


Uluru Ayers Rock

After

Uluru itself is pretty stunning, but the sunset was not exactly the birthday treat I’d been hoping for. The only thing for it was to retreat to the bar, have a few celebratory drinks (while listening to an old codger sing Waltzing Matilda and Down Under) and get an early night before trying again the next day.

After the slight disappointment of the sunset, getting up at 4am the next day to go see the sunrise was not exactly that enticing a prospect. Especially as I’d read the previous week various articles in the Australian press about how poorly situated the brand new, multimillion dollar sunrise viewing platform was. Having seen it, I must say I agree – it’s really much further away than I was expecting, it’s not big enough to fit everyone trying to view the sunrise, and possibly worst of all, there are several trees blocking some of the view. Luckily the platform isn’t the only option, so we followed some paths down in front of the platform, from where we got a much better view – and at least this time we got to see some decent colour change, as the rock was lit up a beautiful bright red colour.

Uluru AYers Rock at sunrise

Uluru at sunrise

After the sunrise, next up was the base tour (and optional climb). Now I’d been wrestling with my conscience – to climb or not to climb? – for quite some time, and I still hadn’t made up my mind on whether or not I was going to even as we headed over in the bus. On the one hand, I do respect the fact that the local aboriginals, the site’s owners, ask that you not climb the rock, and I really don’t want to go around offending people. On the other though, is that fact it’s a damn impressive-looking climb, and apparently the top of the rock isn’t even particularly sacred – it’s actually the base of the rock that has all the culturally significant sites, so I’m wondering how offensive it really is. But as we arrived the decision was taken out of my hands – the forecast temperature and wind speed were too high (the climb is so exposed that high winds can be deadly) – and the climb was closed for the day. In the end I was quite glad really not to have to make the decision – and instead headed off for the 8km walk all the way round the base.

Uluru

Uluru's north side

Actually I’m quite glad it turned out that way, as the full base walk is pretty special, getting to see the rock up close, and appreciating how odd-looking a formation it is, sticking straight, almost vertically up from the surrounding flat landscape, with all sorts of weird rock formations and different textures all the way round. As well as just looking at the rock, there are some rock paintings, a couple of waterholes and some small caves you can look round. All in all, getting close to the rock turned out to be more rewarding than either the sunrise or sunset views, and if you do go, I can highly recommend going the whole way round rather than just doing one of the shorter walks (although with temperatures rapidly heading over 40 degrees even in the morning it’s pretty tough going).

Next up was an afternoon trip to see the sunset at nearby Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)…hoping that it would turn out to be more impressive than its Uluru equivalent.

You can see all of my photos of Uluru here.

Kangaroos, Koalas and Pies

Nice as Melbourne was, I also wanted to explore a bit of the Victorian countryside, so after a weekend of partying in the city we hired a car and headed off to the Grampians, a mountain range and national park a few hours to the north-west of the city.

All through my trip I’ve been fantastically lucky with the weather (except for a very wet week while studying Spanish in Xela), and the run continued as we arrived in Halls Gap. Yet again, there was not a cloud in the sky, and the town was empty (being midweek and before the tourist season begins), so as we had the place to ourselves, we hiked up into the mountains to reach some stunning views across the whole area. On the way we came across this curious little fellow – a little skink with a funny stubby tail – sitting in the path.

The roads were so empty I got the chance to have this taken, my favourite jumping photo yet

A couple of times on the walk we saw kangaroos leaping away from us into the distance, but it was a bit frustrating that they all seemed to be so shy. But as we came back into town, it turned out that not all of them are that wary of tourists – as walked back to our hostel, we had to cross the cricket pitch, only to find it full of kangaroos nibbling away at the grass, seemingly oblivious to the locals practicing their bowling all around them. I’ve seen them in zoos before, but getting to them so close in the wild was an amazing sight.

Kangaroos on a cicket pitch. What could be more Australian?

Next stop on our little country road trip was the Great Ocean Road. It was originally built to provide work for servicemen returning from the First World War, it definitely deserves its reputation as one of the finest coastal drives in the world, as it hugs the huge sandstone cliffs on and off all the way back towards the city, with huge Southern Ocean waves crashing against the coast, creating some cool rock formations along the way, most famous of which are the 12 Apostles.

the 12 Apostles

Bay of Martyrs

Port Fairy lighthouse

Port Fairy wildflower

The other highlight along the way was Cape Otway – not so much the cape itself (you can’t get into the final bit with the lighthouse without paying), but the roads along the way, which are full of koalas, occasionally nibbling away at the leaves, but mostly just sleeping away along the branches. All in all it was the perfect mini break from the city – beautiful mountains, a lovely coastal drive, getting to see both of the iconic Aussie animals in the wild ( as well as getting to stuff myself with pies, something I’ve missed from back home that turn out to be even more popular over here!)

You can see all my Grampians & Great Ocean Road photos here.

Chilling out in Melbourne

On my previous two trips to Australia, I’d only made it to the East Coast states of Queensland & New South Wales, but I’d long heard from other friends who’d travelled to the country that Melbourne was easily their favourite city.

Melbourne Tram

After a hectic few months of travelling, I was really looking forward to spending a little over two weeks there – partly to relax and unwind, partly to catch up with Matt again, and for the practical reasons that I needed a bit of time to try and get my dead camera repaired and to apply for my sixty day Indonesian visa.

I wanted to get the dull stuff done nice and early, so on my first day I headed straight out to the eastern suburbs to visit the Canon repair centre. After being told by Canon Chile that it would take at least a couple of weeks, and probably cost a few hundred dollars, I wasn’t all that optimistic – but within five minutes of getting there, the camera was working again. It turned out there was just a bit of grit caught in the mechanism, and after a quick clean it was back to life. And the nice people didn’t even charge me a cent. Which was a fantastic start to my stay.

I was soon brought back down to earth after visiting the Indonesian consulate. Tourists only get a thirty day visa on arrival, and I want to spend longer there. But I couldn’t apply for my sixty day visa before leaving the UK, as I’d have needed to enter the country within ninety days, which wasn’t going to happen as I’d still be in Central America at that point. So I popped into the consulate only to find that they’ll only issue visas to Australian nationals and residents – so I was out of luck, and my plans to spend longer in Indonesia went out of the window. Time for a new plan – but as write this, on the day I’ll be flying into the country, I still have no idea what that plan is. Time for a little spontaneity, which is probably a good thing.

Federation Square

With all the dull stuff out of the way, it was time to explore the city. And I absolutely loved it. We stayed the first few days in the lovely beachside suburb of St Kilda, and spent our time wandering down the coast, enjoying the beaches and seeing all the Melburnians out enjoying their weekend relaxing on the coast. Highlight for me was getting to ride on the rickety old wooden rollercoaster at Luna Park.

Luna Park

St Kilda sunset

The rest of my time in the city continued in a similar vein, exploring the various different areas, just wandering round the city, doing a bit of shopping, stopping from time to time in some of the many cafes in town. I’d heard before I left that Melbourne had a great ‘European style’ cafe culture, and it’s so true. Melbourne doesn’t really have the famous sights like Sydney’s harbour bridge & opera house (and I have to agree with Gary from Everything Everywhere – the Royal Exhibition Building is easily the most disappointing World Heritage Site I’ve been to. It’s a lovely building and all that, but there is no explanation whatsoever about what’s so special about it that it deserves to be ranked alongside Machu Picchu or Angkor Wat) – instead it feels like a much nicer place to just relax and wander round. It was even better getting to see the city with a local, so I spent no time whatsoever in backpacker ghettos, instead getting to go to parties, and some much nicer local bars that I doubt I’d have ever found had I been on my own.

Royal Exhibition Building

There was one downside to my stay in the city, that I had thought would be an upside – my final weekend in the city was Melbourne Cup weekend, Australia’s biggest horse race and the first big public holiday of the spring. The first downside was that the weekend is so popular that all the hotels and hostels massively jack up their prices, meaning I ended up spending more than my total daily budget on accommodation alone (and more than three times as much as my previous most expensive accommodation, in Miami). The second downside was that the streets in the evening were full of drunken racegoers in suits and posh frocks, falling over and generally being rather annoying. (Although it certainly created a surreal atmosphere on the Saturday night, which was Derby day down at the racecourse and halloween for everyone else, meaning in the evening, the city streets were half full or racegoers in their finery, and half full of people dressed as zombies and werewolves).

All in all, Melbourne was one of my favourite stops so far. It’s been a long time since I spent two weeks in a place, and it was the perfect place to recharge my batteries after South America.

You can see all my photos of Melbourne here.

Top 10 National Parks

In my attempt to list out all my favourite travel places before I leave for my RTW trip, I’ve already covered off countries, cities, world heritage sites and islands, to give me a base to compare against when I get back. Given my growing love of the great outdoors, I figured it was time to tackle my favourite national parks.

1. Tikal National Park, Guatemala

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Temples & jungle in Tikal

Not just my favourite World Heritage Site, but my favourite National Park too. Not many national parks have huge ruined Mayan cities in the middle. Even fewer have howler monkeys too. If you haven’t heard a howler monkey in the wild, you haven’t lived (you can get an idea of the sound from myvideo). Everywhere you go you hear them make their strange strangulated roaring noises. While they howlers steal the show, the place is crawling with wildlife – in the brief time I was there I also saw spider monkeys, leaf-cutter ants, coatimundis and oscellated turkeys. Sadly I didn’t get to see a jaguar though.

2. Blue Mountains National Park, NSW, Australia

This was very close to topping my list of most disappointing national parks – the day I arrived from Sydney, the fog was so thick, the view was like this:

Blue Mountains in the fog

Blue Mountains in the fog

Luckily, the next morning the fog lifted, the sun came out, and we saw that the view was stunning:
same spot, much better view

The next day: same spot, much better view

3. The Lake District National Park, England

Lake District view

Lake District view

Probably the most famous in England, and deservingly so. Seeing the hills covered in snow last December was truly the most beautiful I’ve ever seen England look.

4. Snowdonia National Park, Wales

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

Taking a breather to enjoy the view in Snowdonia

One of the wettest places in the UK (which is saying something), as I discovered on my visit. The mountains are of a very different character to the Lake District, with a less jagged and more open landscape. Plus with all the signs and placenames being in Welsh as well as English, it somehow feels more exotic than travelling within England.

5. La Vanoise National Park, France

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

View across La Vanoise from the slopes of La Plagne

This may sound stupid, but one thing I’d never really considered over the years that I refused to give skiing a try, was that part of the appeal was the beauty of the mountains. The first morning I took the gondola to the top of La Grande Rochette, the view out over the Vanoise, France’s oldest national park, was simply breathtaking. For the rest of the week I kept having to stop (actually it was more that I kept falling over), and take it all in.

6. Yorkshire Dales National Park, England

Trains are by far my favourite way to travel. Mountains are my favourite landscape. The Settle-Carlisle railway combines the two as it cuts its way across the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s quite spectacular (which just makes me all the keener to try Switzerland’s Glacier Express. Walking the Yorkshire 3 Peaks is one of the UK’s great walks (and one of my highlights of 2008); less well-known is that the park also has some of the country’s best caving.

7. Lamington National Park, Queensland, Australia

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

Getting friendly with the local birds in the Lamington National Park

It may have great surf, but the Gold Coast of Australia isn’t really my kind of place. One of the things it really has going for it is the easy access to Lamington, part of theGondwana Rainforests world heritage site. It’s the largest sub-tropical rainforest in the world, and sits on a plateau that is the remains of a vast ancient volcano. It’s great for hiking, and I had fun getting close to the local birdlife while I was there.

8. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, Wales

The only National Park in the UK that exists because of its coastline, the Pembrokeshire Coast also has one of the country’s best long distance walks, all the way round the coastline. It’s also famous for its sea birds, particularly around the island of Skomer, which is a reserve. It’s also great for activities – coasteering during my brother’s stag weekend was one of the most fun days I’ve ever had.

9. Tulum National Park, Mexico

Tulum - temple by the beach

Tulum - temple by the beach

It’s the only ruined Mayan city on the coast. That coast is the Caribbean. Ruined ancient city, on the cliffs overlooking white sand and turquoise sea. What’s not to love? If I had one gripe it’d be the crowds (all those daytrippers from Cancun).

10. Northumberland National Park, England

I’m sure if you asked most Brits to name all the national parks in the country, Northumberland would probably be right down the bottom of the list. Sitting right to the east of the Lake District, and at the lower, northern end of the Pennines that also contain the more dramatic Yorkshire Dales & Peak District, that’s probably no surprise. The plus side is that it gets far less crowded than those, and it’s just as beautiful. It also provides easy access to the stunning beaches and castles of the Northumberland coast, which in my book is by far England’s most underrated spot.

Top 10 Favourite Countries

I have no plans to make lists a regular feature here (even if people do love them apparently), but I thought it’d be worthwhile to list my favourite places over the next few days, so that I can revisit them when I get back in 18 months’ time, to see how these have changed. So welcome to ‘top tens week’. And if you find lists boring, normal service will resume next week.

1. Mexico

San Cristobal de las Casas

San Cristobal de las Casas

My trip to Mexico in 2007 first got me thinking seriously about taking a year off to see more of the world. I only saw a small portion of the country (the Yucatan Pensinsular, Chiapas, and Mexico City) but it was more than enough to make me fall in love with the place. Aside from the obvious bits – beautiful scenery, stunning beaches, Mayan temples – two things in particular help seal Mexico’s spot at the top of this list: the friendliest locals of anywhere I’ve ever visited, and best of all, the food. I don’t think I had a bad meal the whole time I was there. The only downside being that Mexican food in the UK now tastes like a very, very poor imitation (other than the terrific Mestizo). As I wrote in one of my earliest postshere, it’ll be the first stop on my trip, and I can’t wait.

2. Laos

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Wat Ho Pha Bang, Luang Prabang

Only narrowly beaten by Mexico, it was in Laos at Christmas that I decided for certain that I was going to head round the world in 2009. Everyone I met whilst there agreed it was the surprise highlight of South East Asia. Easily the most laidback country I’ve been to, it’s another place I’m heading back to, but this time for longer, so I can enjoy the relaxed pace of life for a while longer without having to rush.

3. Spain

I’ve had more holidays in Spain than any other country, and it hasn’t let me down once, and (along with the next country on the list) is one the only countries in Europe I can imagine living in. The Spanish lifestyle seems so much more civilised than ours back home.

4. Germany

I’m a little biased here – six years living there have left a special place in my heart for Germany (and the Germans). It’s pretty sad that a combination of history and stereotypes dominate the British perception of the country (although I suppose it could be a blessing in disguise…Germany is unlikely to ever end of overrun by the types of British tourists who have ruined large chunks of meditteranean Europe)

5. France

Beaches, mountains, great cities, fantastic food…France has just about everything you could want out of a holiday destination. What’s not to love? (Well, apart from the French themselves…)

6. Portugal

It’s remarkable how few tourists you come across when you get away from the obvious bits (Lisbon, the Algarve). They’re missing out.

7. Australia

The country is so vast, and I’ve only scratched the surface so far. If & when I get to explore the interior more, I can see Australia working it’s way further up my list. Although that won’t be next year – other than a brief stop in Melbourne, I’ve decided not to spend too much time there, as it costs a a fair bit more than everywhere else I’m going.

8. USA

Very similar to the above, there’s so much I still want to do in the US. But what I’ve seen so far, I love. The strangest thing about visiting is that it all seems so instantly familiar, thanks to a million Hollywood movies and TV shows.

9. Georgia

The highlight of my school trip to the then-USSR back when I was 13, which makes recent events all the sadder for me. It’s a truly beautiful little country, and I long to go back to see how much it’s changed in the last 20 years.

10. Azerbaijan

When I visited back in 1988, the combination of modern, brutalist Soviet & older Islamic architecture with deserts full of oil wells, made Azerbaijan feel a world apart from the other Soviet republics I visited, and far more exotic than anywhere else I’d been.

And the biggest disappointment? Well, mentioning this to most people in the UK appears to be tantamount to sacrilege, however my two trips to Italy have not overly impressed me so far. I think I’ve been unlucky, and missed the best bits to be honest, but on both visits I’ve found the locals to be less than friendly, and the cities lacking atmosphere.