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Wildlife Journalist and Ocean lover contributing to Getty Images and The Scuba News. Local Patch Reporter at BBC Wildlife and Brand Ambassador at Sand Cloud. Happy Travelling! // LiveTheDream

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Are we at the start of a plastic revolution?

Last year, if, like me, you sat down every Sunday for 7 weeks to immerse yourself in Blue Planet 2, then you're not alone. At its peak, a staggering 14 million of us tuned in to BBC One to witness the grandeur of our oceans and the remarkable life they support.
Blue Planet
A grouper is barely visible amongst the plastic waste
The last instalment of this epic saga has made waves on social media. In fact, it's been nothing short of a tsunami.
The final episode was regarded as a call to arms against plastic pollution, with Prime Minister Teresa May calling it "public service broadcasting at its finest."

Indeed, despite the coverage of bird-snatching giant trevally, hungry orcas and great white sharks, plastic was by far the biggest antagonist of the series. It appeared to kick-start an online revolution, aimed at stamping out unnecessary plastic usage through increasing awareness. And increase awareness it did.
Blue Planet 2 revolutionised how we view plastic and showcased
the severity of the issue


By January 2018, supermarket giant Iceland vowed to have 100% plastic free packaging on all of it own-branded products within five years.
In the same month, coffee giant Costa announced they would ditch all plastic straws from their stores this year, hot on the heels of Wagamama and Pret a Manger.

There appears to have been a rapid, monumental shift in opinion from governments, supermarkets and civilians alike since Blue Planet 2 aired. Good, it's about time we sorted our shit out. By that, I mean our single use plastic straws, bottles, bags, forks, knives, packets, cups and just about anything else we don't need.

There is no denying that it's hard to go through life without having some form of environmental impact. Believe me, I've tried it and am still trying to do so. I've been passionate about the issue of plastic pollution for years, and I've still got a way to go before I can comfortably say I'm living plastic free.


It's estimated that over a million seabirds are killed directly
or indirectly by plastic pollution in a single year. Is that takeout Frappucino really worth it? 
Thanks to the power of social media, I firmly believe that plastic pollution is no longer an issue for the mindful few but rather a problem being faced by all of us. The explosion in news coverage and harrowing footage of plastic- ridden reefs and turtle hatchlings crawling over bottles just to get to the ocean going viral online has woken people up, and here's hoping we stay awake long enough to stop the problem getting worse before it's too late.

~ J








Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Handy tips for the solo traveller

The thought of going away by yourself can be daunting. Being in a new city, in a new country with different values is certainly a shock to the system, but it's an amazing way to discover just what you're made of. After all, you'll be with you forever, so you may as well get to know yourself. If you're considering solo travel, here are some tips to get you started.

1. Don't Panic!
It's easy to get complacent when travelling in a group or with a partner. When you're travelling solo though, it's very easy to panic if you get into a pickle. From misplaced passports to stomach bugs to getting completely lost, there are plenty of things to look out for. Of course, it's unlikely that any of that will actually happen to you as long as you keep your wits about you and make sure you keep a level head.

2. Stop and smell the roses
This is perhaps the greatest perk of solo travel. As humans, most of us are social beings, and friends for life can be met anywhere. If you're craving some company, go out and find some! Meeting new and like minded people can add so much to your trip. Sharing everything from travel tips to sun cream and exploring with someone new, even if it's only for a day can we extremely rewarding.

4. #LiveLikeALocal
Although it's super cliche, living like a local (and by that I mean eating the local food, staying in guest houses and small locally run hotels rather than the 5 star corporate giants and generally immersing yourself in the culture) is something to really sink your teeth into. It's very easy to explore a new country whilst not really exploring it at all. For example, imagine going to Thailand and staying in a beautiful 5* hotel in Bangkok, all inclusive. It has a pool, spa, comfy bed, flat screen TV, WiFi and even a mini bar. Why would you need to leave?  Beyond the wall of this hotel is bustling hotbed of unimaginable treasures. From fried crickets to golden temples (don't forget to add in copious amounts of organised chaos) leaving the creature comforts of the hotel will truly be an eye-opening experience. It will encourage you to truly immerse yourself in the country you've come to explore and not just peek from afar.

Good luck, have fun and #LiveTheDream

J x

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Topside travel tips for SCUBA divers


It's no secret that a diving holiday is a brilliant holiday. There's a 100% guarantee that you'll see something incredible, not least because you're spending time in the ocean and meeting like minded people along the way. But not everyone in your group may be a diver, you may be new to diving and may not want to do it for the full trip. So, here are a few tips to help you have fun and live the dream whilst you're not beneath the waves.


1.      Phone your dive centre in advance to make sure you’re getting all the kit you need. You don't want to get caught out!

2.      Check out your dive centre on Trip Advisor first – you need to know it's legit. Of course, most dive centres are excellent but make sure you know what you're booking.

3.      Not diving all week? Don’t lounge by the pool – Explore the country!

4.      … But use common sense when it comes to eating the local food – There’s nothing wrong with trying the local cuisine – It really adds to the trip, but go easy on the salads if you’re diving in somewhere like Egypt and decide to eat out. Same goes for chicken, especially if you’re scheduled to dive the next day. Sick divers can be a liability. (Plus you may miss some of the underwater action!)

5.      If you’re planning on spending lots of time underwater, invest in some coral – friendly sun cream.

You never forget the first time you go diving properly, whether that’s down in Stoney Cove on a chilly UK morning or off a dive boat straight into the Red Sea. It’s strangely addictive, once you’ve got the diving bug, well, you’re stuck with it. Although it is a wonderful experience, not many people can spend their entire holiday diving, and for the poorer traveller, it’s not always an option, as let’s face it, diving can be expensive, especially if you don’t have your own kit.  To help you make the most of your trip, here are some travel tips for when you’re above the water.

1.      If you’re diving “backpacker” style (rather than staying on a liveaboard or an upmarket hotel) have an explore around the nearest town. Hidden gems can so often be missed when you’re travelling, perhaps because they’re overshadowed by the main tourist sites (such as the Pyramids in Egypt, or Yucatan in Mexico).

2.      Connect with other divers. One of the wonderful things about diving is the opportunity to meet new people (especially if you go on a solo dive trip, as everybody needs a dive buddy!) Lifelong friends and helpful guides are never too far away – you just need to have the confidence to say hello. (Key thing here is to not keep to yourself too much if you’re on a dive boat – That applies to both guests, instructors and dive boat team.)

3.      Try AirBnB or couch surfer (within reason) rather than mainstream hotels – It’s a much cheaper option which opens up greater opportunities to dive more (depending on how long your trip is.)

4.      TripAdvisor beforehand – Dodgy kit = dead divers. Not all dive centres are legitimate. Look for PADI, BISAC or SSI certification. By extension, if you dive with a private instructor, make sure you ask for relevant certification. (DiveMaster, Instructor and Master Scuba Diver cards should be on hand at all times, along with PADI, BISAC OR SSI identification.

5.      Bring a dive knife – There’s been a fair amount of debate as to whether divers should carry knives. If you do, it goes without saying that caution should be taken at all times. You don’t want to cut yourself, your buddy nor your kit. However, a knife could potentially save your life, should you accidentally get caught in rock or a kelp forest. Additionally, you never know when you could come across an animal in need - be that a whale trapped in fishing line or a turtle wrapped In plastic film. Do ensure that you are competent and safe when attempting to remove any plastic from an animal. But having a knife may help you remove it more easily.

        There you have it, some tips and tricks to make the most of a dive trip. Have fun, be safe and #livethedream
 
 





Monday, 9 October 2017

What The State of Nature Report means for UK wildlife


 The RSPB State of Nature Report 2016 revealed that 15% of UK wildlife faces extinction, a figure which scientists are “extremely concerned” about.


The report also discovered that 56% of UK wildlife, including British Hedgehogs, Robins and Basking Sharks, has been in serious decline since the 1970s.

Sir David Attenborough said that “Our nature is in trouble, and it needs our help like never before.”

Animals ranging from Dormice to Bats are experiencing huge drops in numbers, the report shows. Bat expert Kiki DeAngelis claims the findings to be “simply tragic.”

One explanation suggests that an “out of sight, out of mind mentality” from people has allowed wildlife across the British Isles to suffer so dramatically.  DeAngelis said that “nature need not be seen as separate from human lives but rather a part of it… We need to wake up.”

The main factors influencing UK wildlife populations are:

  • Agriculture

  • Climate Change

  • Drainage of wetlands

  • Urbanisation

  • Poor forest management

  • EU wildlife regulations

Idle Valley Nature Reserve in Nottingham is one of the largest sites for nature conservation in the East Midlands

Help is on the way, however, in the form of volunteers, wildlife conservation charities and nature reserves.

A significant finding from the report showed that wildlife in protected areas actually saw an increase in key wildlife populations, such as Harvest Mice and Dartford Warblers.

This trend has been recorded in Nottingham’s Idle Valley Nature Reserve by wildlife ranger Ian O’Brian. Meanwhile, Scottish wildlife photographer and conservationist Andy Hare said that "unfortunately, humans are the problem. We are just too dominant, we put too much pressure on the ecosystem."

Marine mammals like this Spinner Dolphin often mistake plastic bags for food, such as Jellyfish

 

 

This view was strongly supported by the report, which cited agriculture and climate change as the two biggest factors contributing to the wildlife decline.

The report also explains that wildlife cannot contend with the rapid habitat loss in the UK which has been accelerated by more roads being introduced into Green Belt land.

 

In terms of aquatic life, the report highlights the growing threat from plastic and how it can easily be mistaken for food.

On land, invasive species have been blamed for declining wildlife populations. It is not all doom and gloom however. The State of Nature Report aims to wake people up to the “next great extinction” happening before our eyes. According to the charity, through “well – planned and sufficiently resourced conservation, we can turn around the fortunes of our wildlife.”

 

If you want to help here are a few ways to get involved :

  • Volunteer at a local nature reserve

  • Do a beach clean up

  • Adopt an animal

  • Recycle

  • Check where your food comes from

  • Set up a bird feeder or bird box in your garden

  • Join a wildlife group

*Photos courtesy of Jo Payne, Wiki Creative Commons and The Wildlife Trust*

Saturday, 20 May 2017

Spotlight : Marsa Alam, Egypt

For thousands of UK tourists, Egypt has long been a prime holiday destination - Sunny, sandy and full of glorious beaches, the attraction is obvious. As a diver, I go to Egypt for what lies beneath the waves of the Red Sea. In short, an abundance of marine life largely unparalleled by few other places on Earth.

Perhaps the most enticing thing about Egypt is that it is largely accessible for everyone. A large budget and a second student loan are not required - It's not a weekend in Skeggy, that's for sure, but it's hardly a stay at the Four Seasons Bora Bora either.

In recent times, the price of a package holiday to Egypt has plummeted - The country's role in the Arab Spring combined with ongoing turbulence across the Middle East have largely been identified as the main culprits. After MetroJet flight 9268 crashed in the Sinai desert, questions were also raised as to whether it was safe for overseas holidaymakers to travel to Egypt.

 Since late 2015 UK tourists have not been able to fly into Sharm El Sheikh, which was both a huge shame but also a huge opportunity for divers to explore other parts of such a diverse country.
At present, an all-inclusive week in Hurghada could cost you as little as £300. Of course, this is before we add on the diving costs, but even so, that's not half bad at all.
Three hours south of through Hurghada however, lies Marsa Alam. The chances are, you've already heard of the place. What was once a small fishing village 20 years ago is now emerging as one of the best places for diving in the world. It's a million miles away from the buzzing atmosphere of Sharm, but Marsa Alam offers a much more calm experience, and the diving is incredible. It is becoming a not-so-hidden gem, perhaps because divers are looking for an alternative to the resorts in South Sinai and dive magazines are showcasing what Marsa Alam has to offer in glossy 10 page-spreads on a fairly regular basis.

The abundance of endangered Green Turtles in Marsa Alam is a year - round treat, along with a high concentration of Dugong or Sea Cows. These tend to feed on the Sea Grass at Marsa Mubarak and Marsa Abu Dabab dive sites, both of which can be accessed by shore.  If you're an advanced diver, Elphinstone Reef offers some of the best chances to see Oceanic Whitetip Sharks and Brothers Island could even leave you with a sighting of a Great Hammerhead - now that is an all- inclusive holiday. Bottlenose and Spinner Dolphins also make regular appearances en-route to dive sites, and Sh'aab Samadai (Dolphin House Reef) is always a popular option for younger divers and snorkelers. Its novice diver rating combined with excellent wildlife spotting opportunities (a resident pod of Dolphins never fails to amaze) makes it a family friendly dive trip with something for everyone.

Accommodation varies from 5 star all-inclusive resorts (Such as The Three Corners Fayrouz Plaza or the Hilton) to more "backpacker" style digs, like the ever popular Marsa Shagra and Marsa Nakari dive camps, which are situated on the beach less that 100 yards from the reef. Liveaboards are also a popular option for divers as they offer
three dives a day, seven days a week, for the full Red Sea experience, which is most definitely offered in Marsa Alam.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Underwater Photography - Green Turtles In the South Red Sea

To me Turtles are one of the hardest animals to film underwater, because, as odd as it sounds, they really aren't bothered by our presence. With that in mind then, keeping a respectable distance is something that you need to remember, and constantly! I always found it so upsetting to see people touching marine life, whether it be stamping on the coral reef or indeed trying to ride or stroke Turtles. However the temptation to get closer and closer for the perfect picture is something that I really had to be mindful of on this trip. If you're looking for a place to see or film Green Turtles then look no further. Marsa Alam in the South Red Sea is home to many. This place is my favourite travel destination, and for good reason! The highest concentration of Green Turtles (and sometimes Hawksbill, but you will have more luck finding them on the nearby reef) can be found at Marsa Mubarak or Turtle Bay as it is known locally (not the Caribbean Restaurant, but far more rewarding)
We decided to give it a go. We knew they were here as we were lucky enough to see them the previous day, nibbling inconspicuously at the sea grass which lines the sandy bottom of the bay. Getting on our snorkelling kit was no problem until we attempted to enter the water- rocks everywhere! Of course, with fins on it is almost impossible to enter the water corectly, so of course we stumbled around unable to remove our fins until one of us fell over. Luckily the camera wasn't damaged! (I have never attempted a shore snorkel or dive with my fins on since!)
The water at Marsa Mubarak has pretty good visibility despite the sandy bottom; and the abundance of both sea grass and reef (found a little further out) makes it a brilliant place to spot wildlife. Whitetip Reef Shark pups are known to visit the bay and Dugongs known as "Dennis" and "Dyson" to the locals have made it their permanent home. You'll be pretty lucky to see either of these- but your chances of seeing Green Turtles here is pretty much guaranteed! After 10 minutes in the water we were greeted by two giant Green Turtles, each one the size of a lorry tire. Camera time. I use an Olympus camera underwater - It's by no means top of the range but for a beginner SCUBA diver like me it does the trick! Here are some of the photos. This was the first time I had ever attempted underwater photography! Now I am fully aware that these aren't top of the top amazing, but I was pretty impressed that I managed to stay still enough at depth with my dive kit to take them at all! These pictures are from both Marsa Mubarak and Marsa Abu Dabbab, another exceptional spot for diving with Turtles just down the road from Mubarak. Turtles are so peaceful to dive with, pushing through the water with ease and nipping away at the sea grass, whilst us divers and snorkelers faff around with our kit and try not to disturb the wildlife. We should feel grateful that they allow us to share their space with them in this way. If you're a big fan of underwater photography or can recommend any camera kit or camera techniques, please drop me an email because I would love to hear from you!
Happy travelling,
JoGoesWalkabout



Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Arizona Horses - The wildlife of South Mountain

We decided to "hike with horses" during our recent trip to Arizona. I absolutely love spending time with horses, and it seemed a great way to get around - it also gave us lots of opportunities to spot wildlife (and spot we did!)
From the research I did before leaving the UK, Ponderosa Stables up near the South Mountain Preserve seemed like a great choice - Not too far from Phoenix and the horses looked in beautiful condition. Bill had never ridden before (apart from Camels in Marrakech, see previous blog posts if you're interested) and so what better place to learn than in the wild west!
We had come to realise that hiking in Arizona in the peak summer months was hard work. Both of us are fit and strong but it soon became clear that the sun was stronger. Twice we had to abandon big hikes/climbs up Squaw Peak and Camelback Mountain through either being too hot to even continue, mild heat stroke and then running low on water (6 litres still wasn't enough for us) so an early morning horse trek (7.30 am) seemed like a much nicer way of getting around, and it wasn't too hot for the horses either at that time of day.
Our guide was called Peter, or Curly-Slim (his ranch name,) an ex military man who embodied everything wild west - Tasselled boots, spurs, a thick southern accent and infectious enthusiasm which was channelled through a big smile and thick shoulders, all finished off with a Stetson. (What else?) We could point to any landmark, or odd looking rock, or Cactus, and he knew about it. Our horses (Specky, Sherrie, Skyball and Dingo) happily plodded along the terrain, which was a challenging mix of navigating up and down steep riverbeds and then guiding the horses through the infamous "Snake Alley" which proved to live up to its name. Our first wildlife sighting occurred minutes after setting off - A Zebra Tailed Lizard sat on a rock - A nice find for us, as we were yet to see anything on our previous failed hike up Squaw Peak. Turns out little lizards popped up everywhere, unfortunately I missed a few of these as my horse, Specks, wandered off the trail for a few minutes before we finally returned to Bill and Curly Slim. A Jack Rabbit was the next surprise. Huge with big, bumbling ears and a sort of dazed and bewildered look about them, native to the US and Mexico, it sat under a tree, perhaps avoiding the sun or maybe hiding from predators, it was completely un-phased by our presence, and bimbled off as we tailed past. Seeing a Coyote was a big highlight for me - I wasn't expecting to see one, and I still couldn't believe it when Bill shouted at us to turn and look. Trotting over a ridge no more than 20 metres away was a young male Coyote, panting under the sun and sniffing the air, before stopping to take a good look at us. What do we do? Are there more? Will the horses spook? Will the coyote attack the horses? It occurred to me that I didn't actually know what to do at this point, but the Coyote simply looked on and trotted away through a river bed, leaving us to our trek. What an experience to see such a beautiful animal in the wild. Seeing it on the television never prepares me for encounters like this - Life almost seems to pause momentarily.
Now the scariest part of these treks was our encounter with a Diamondback Rattlesnake. I should mention that our horses were an absolute delight - Well natured and enthusiastic but not easily spooked by birds flying from the trees or rabbits jumping nearby, but the Rattlesnake was different.  Dingo near enough threw Curly Slim on the ground, as minutes after we entered Snake Alley, a Diamondback emerged, coiled in the hot sand, hissing and rattling, ready to have a go. We weren't sure at first if Dingo had actually trodden on the snake, but either way he knew it was there. By this time, our horses had noticed what was going on as the Snake rattled and hissed and gradually we backed them away and headed up a little ridge, away from the Snake, which was an adolescent male about 4 or 5 feet long. Adrenalin fuelled we headed back to the ranch, exhilarated, Curly Slim laughing, clearly taking the encounter in his stride. I guess to him it was just another day in the west.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Sun, Sweat and Snakes : How to stay safe during a Desert trip

Whether you're off to the Outback or the Sahara - Desert environments are no joke.
When I was 6 I went on my first desert trek in the Sahara, and my parents were in charge of making sure I was adequately protected - I was told to drink water, I had a hat and a headscarf, high UV protection sunglasses, and factor 50 everywhere. So naturally for the countless more trips into the desert I was pretty set.
Of course this all changes when you start to go away without your mum and dad, and you realise just how much all the nagging paid off - The first time I went away on my own I went to Malaysia and I soon realised just how bad I was at remembering to put sun cream on, (thankfully I remembered the Malaria tablets!) Then the year after I headed to Spain with my friends - I ended up with a heat rash and a very burned everything. Clearly I was so used to being told to put sun cream on or put a hat on that when it came to looking after myself I wasn't all that prepared.
Thankfully I learned from past mistakes, and I came home from Marrakech unscathed and unburned.
Of course the dangers of the desert are far worse than just sunburn - Heatstroke, exhaustion, dehydration and animals all play a role in making desert trips, whether that's 3 weeks in the Sahara or a day hike In the Sonoran, a potentially dangerous venture. So here's some tips on what to pack and how to stay safe :

- Bring a scarf or shawl > Most of the time its boiling in the desert, so its understandable that shorts and vests seem like a good idea, and they are, but make sure you bring a scarf in case you need to cover your shoulders or head. If you're wearing a cap and you feel too hot, swap it with a shawl and gently drape it over your head, it will still give you some protection from heatstroke and it will stop your scalp burning.

- Never skimp on water > If you need to bring an extra backpack just for carrying water then bring one. Being caught out in soaring temperatures is far worse than having a bit of backache - And the backache will give you an incentive to keep drinking, too!

- Don't hike alone > Similarly to diving, make sure you have a buddy with you! Hiking alone can be dangerous if you start suffering from heatstroke, and if you get lost either on a trail or elsewhere, two heads are better than one!

- Wear Shoes > Feeling the sand or ground beneath your feet is a beautiful feeling (it's called earthing) but in certain places (I'll use Arizona as an example) you can never be too sure what you're going to stumble over. Rattlesnakes, Scorpions and even broken glass can pose a serious threat in the desert, made even worse if you're in a remote area or on your own. You're unlikely, however to come across any "nasties" when you stay on designated trails or you're with a guide, but you can never be too sure, so always keep your feet protected.

- Bring the Factor 50 > I cannot stress this enough, unfortunately through my own experience going without suncream in a desert environment is agonising. (I walked to Port Ghalib from Marsa Mubarak in Egypt, its a mere 30 minute walk, desert on one side, reef and Red Sea on the other, but by the time I arrived I knew my legs had been seared into next week by the sun. Putting my wet suit on the next day during a dive was near unbearable) Just putting high factor sun cream on before a hike or trip won't be enough, sun cream becomes inactive much faster than you may realise and once you start to feel that burning sensation, it won't stop until you get into the shade.

So there you have it, a few things I've learned over the years during my desert travels. I hope you find this useful and have some awesome adventures too!

Happy Travelling!


Jo

Monday, 2 May 2016

Cheap Thrills : New York on a budget

The USA has always been on my bucket list and I have finally sorted out a trip, starting with 3 days in New York, followed by 2 weeks hiking in Arizona. Fear not if you fancy a trip  across the pond, because America on the cheap certainly seems possible. When Bill and I sat down to discuss where to go next, America seemed like the obvious choice. We had already sampled the delights of Morocco and The Netherlands together so we fancied somewhere further afield. Bill is a seasoned traveller to New York, where he visits his friend Chris, so we decided it's
 a perfect place to start. If I'm honest, seeing the words "New York" (specifically Manhattan) and budget in the same sentence aren't something I'd expect to see. Manhattan prices are pretty steep, even for hostel accommodation. So, we are staying in Queens, a cultural hot spot in New York, not too far from Manhattan. We have been lucky enough to be invited to stay with Bill's wonderful friend Chris, but if an option like this isn't available to you, I'd really recommend looking at accommodation away from Manhattan. Not only is the subway system in America extensive, it is also relatively cheap, it only takes around half an hour to get from Queens to Manhattan, and don't forget that a subway trip in New York City is, by the sounds of things, a fascinating experience in itself too! For me, arriving in a new country with little money is both exhilarating and terrifying. Take Morocco for example, by the end of day 3 we had almost run out of money, and it was at this point that we began to walk to new places, eat street food from little stalls that we wouldn't have noticed otherwise, and found little restaurants off the beaten track offering cheaper meals than the big touristy areas. I hope that New York is the same! New York does not just necessarily mean downtown Manhattan, Times Square and the usual tourist hotspots. An apartment in Brooklyn will set you back a similar price to a hostel in Manhattan, and you get to see two different districts of New York this way.
To avoid big taxi rates and sore feet from walking, we are taking Penny boards with us (similar to skateboards, but smaller and much easier to use!) We are specifically taking them for Central Park, which is an absolute must for us. The penny boards make it much more efficient to get around, meaning we have more time to explore different places as we only have three days in New York. Conveniently, they also fit nicely into our suitcases.
In terms of food, it looks as though good old street food is the way to go. Corn dogs/Chili Dogs/Hot Dogs aren't nearly as expensive as some restaurants (though we have been told that Parker and Quinn is an absolute must, so this is on our list)
In terms of "the sights" this is where we have really had to cut back. We are not doing the Statue of Liberty trip or the Empire State building, (Bill's already done them, and I'm more than happy to just be lucky enough to see them) We are however, planning a cheeky walk in - walk out of the Plaza Hotel, in homage to Crocodile Dundee, but thankfully this won't cost us anything (as long as we don't get caught)
If you're planning to do New York on a budget, you have to be prepared to not do everything on one trip. In a few years I am certain that we will do New York big time, perhaps for New Year, but for now, this is the plan to make the first part of our America trip epic but easy on the pocket.
Happy travelling!
Jo
(Thanks for lending me the NY pictures, Bill)

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Canals, Cannabis and Cheese tasting: 36 hours in Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one hell of a place, a vibrant yet relaxed city which has become the tourist capital of The Netherlands - No Wonder. Without trying to sound like a holiday rep, there is so much to do here, a lot of which, we managed to do in our 2 days.
We booked our trip to Amsterdam about 2 weeks in advance, getting the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam rather than flying to Schipol airport. We had a rough plan of what we wanted to do, but our budget wasn't massive as we had just booked a trip to the USA. In a place like Amsterdam however, this wasn't an issue!

When we got off the bus at Centraal Station, we were greeted by a downpour of rain, so brolly in hand, our first job was to find our hotel, The 2 -star Di Ann Hotel on Raadhuisstraat. Map in hand, the conversation went like this. "I haven't read a map since my Duke of Edinburgh" to which Bill replied "I can read a wilderness map... but we aren't in the wilderness are we." We never plan what we do or where we go with military precision, but both of us stumped ourselves with our own ignorance at apparently not being able to map read. Common sense kicked in however and we had no problem reading the map and after about 20 minutes, the rain had stopped and we found our room. The Di Ann hotel is situated in a brilliant location, about 5 minutes away from Dam Square and Anne Frank's house, along with the Red Light District and a very large selection of "Coffeeshops" (for the full cultural experience.) We had read some diabolical reviews on Trip Advisor, mostly about the steep stairs and money being stolen but we found the hotel to be perfect for what we wanted. It was relatively cheap, we had a shower, a TV (we didn't use it) and the most comfortable bed we have ever slept in. On the last day however, some money was taken from my bag when we were at breakfast, but the manager very kindly reimbursed it to us (surprising as we thought he was the very person who had nicked it). 
Anyway, back to day 1. We decided to start the trip off with a meander around and we ended up in a coffeeshop, specifically, The Bull Dog, one of the most famous coffeeshops in Amsterdam. It was a very smoky place, obviously. Bill went for a pre-rolled weed joint, which was huge. So huge in fact he only just finished it. After, we did the canal cruise. If you've never been to Amsterdam a canal cruise is a great place to start and I highly recommend it. An hour long trip takes you through Oosterdok (East Dock) and all the main tourist streets. A lot of places in Amsterdam look similar, so its a good way to get your bearings, especially as it allows you to use churches as landmarks if you get lost. All the excitement got too much for the little girl in front of us however, and she soiled herself mid cruise. Trumpy Miranda (name changed to protect the innocent, or guilty, depends how you look at it) as she became known to us, only added to the experience in hindsight, but at the time the smell was nothing short of eye watering, however I had the same accident in the Cairo Museum when I was significantly older than Trumpy Miranda, I might add, when dealing with food poisoning, so I of all people cannot pass judgement here. On the cruise we noticed an amazing floating Chinese Restaurant, "Sea Palace." In the end we went here for dinner, which was expensive but a real treat and the food was very authentic. It's worth a visit just to look at the d├ęcor inside. Koi ponds, golden Buddha statues, streamers from Chinese New Year, nothing short of a beautiful assault on the senses.
There is no shortage of places to eat in Amsterdam, you could stuff yourself silly. Holland's colonial past has introduced a smorgasbord of international restaurants - Indonesian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Argentinian Steakhouses, Italian, British, and of course, Dutch, so we were spoiled for choice at lunch time. My parents, who were also in Amsterdam at the time actually, said they chose where they ate on the basis that they knew nothing on the menu, which led them to a Malaysian restaurant. If however, you don't fancy the not knowing, there are plenty of frites stalls, waffle and pancake houses, hotdogs, pretty much everything you can imagine. After lunch it was back to the Coffeeshops. This was my first time trying Cannabis, I must admit and it was a very relaxing experience. We went to The Coffee Store, next to the Bull Dog and had their pre rolled joint. The shop itself felt much less intense and intimidating than some of the others we had been to and it made the experience very enjoyable. We very much did the full Amsterdam experience, as later that evening, we hit the Red Light District. It is not an intimidating place at all, though it is most definitely a culture shock. The district itself is apparently very well regulated and although sex is very much part of the culture in Amsterdam, this side of it was actually fairly low key. We meandered through and headed to a pub for a Heineken (what else?)

Day 2 was much quieter, we took a sunny walk to Vondelpark, which is a half hour to forty five minute walk from Raadhuisstraat. Vondelpark is lovely. It is also home to a heartwarming "findfence" whereby items found by people on the park were hung to a little fence with crocodile clips in the hope that people would find them again. We, to our surprise, also found a colony of parakeet in the trees, and watched a little spotted woddpecker tap through the trees. Everything about the place was relaxed. The lovelock bridges Paris is so famed for also showed up in Amsterdam, though not quite to the same extent. Romantic messages and declarations of love scraped into the metal locks just added to the charm of the place. On the way back to Centraal Station, we wandered into an art gallery cum clothing store at the end of Raadhuisstraat, which featured some incredible stories from Tibetan and Syrian refugees who had found their way to Amsterdam to build a better life. We headed back up to Dam Square for a sandwich, to find Yoda, Darth Vader, Death, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and a man playing the bagpipes. Not to mention the pigeons, who were resting on a boy's shoulders as he fed them some bread. Our final challenge was choosing cheese. We went to Henri Willig's cheese and more to try some samples; we needn't have bothered buying lunch! So many different flavours, truffle, lavender, pesto, garlic, champagne, asparagus! We settled on a garlic and herb gouda, before heading, shattered but enthusiastically, back to Centraal Station for the ride home. Amsterdam truly is a wonderful city, and we will most definitely come back for round  2.