Project Opportunity Nicaragua

Bee & Nick Say: Hola! In a break from our current European adventures, we just thought we’d cast your mind back to our adventures in Latin America, and in particular Leon in Nicargaua. One of the things that is never far from our minds is how lucky we are to be able to travel to these countries, and then share our adventures with you guys. But for many people who live there, daily life is a struggle. It was something that was really brought home to us when we met Deborah and Kate, two amazing women who help run Project Opportunity. We still remain in contact, and recently they asked us to help spread the word about them by sharing their fund-raising letter. They’re currently fundraising for next year, and if you can be generous in this festive season it would be much appreciated. We unfortunately saw a lot of corruption with charities and NGOs in Latin America, with funds not going where they were supposed to, so it was breath of fresh air to discover Project Opportunity. Everyone of your donated pennies goes to where its needed, rather than into someone’s back pocket, so you really will be helping make a difference, however much or little you can spare. Anyway, that’s enough from me, here’s their fundraising letter and details on how you can help…

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Deborah & Kate Say: Project Opportunity begins its 7th year of grass-roots work in Leon, Nicaragua, thanks to many generous contributions and several grants. We’re writing to ask for your help to support Project Opportunity programs in 2015. Soon we’ll be joining our on-the-ground team in Leon. To learn more about how Project Opportunity benefits Nicaraguan children and families please visit our website www.projectopp.org.

Here are examples of accomplishments during 2014:
  • Preschool bathroom and septic system – constructed to replace pit latrines and benefit 75 children and staff, what an improvement!
  • Hotel housekeeping job training – 11 mothers completed our classes and internships in Leon hotels; 4 are now employed and the remainder receive coaching throughout their job search.
  • “Save a Life” classes – 18 classes were taught for 240 teachers, social workers, hotel and restaurant workers and parents. To date, we know of 9 lives that have been saved by former participants.
  • Scholarships – 10 dedicated students receive tutoring, counseling support and payment of their school expenses.
  • Primary education – 6 adults attend our twice weekly classes and will earn their 6th grade diplomas in December.
  • Dental health – 14 mothers were hired and trained to help us teach oral hygiene and tooth brushing with over 250 children.
  • Educational and teaching materials - 7 preschool classrooms received books, paper, posters, crayons, scissors, toys and more.
What’s new for 2015? In addition to continuing the above programs, we have some new plans for the coming year:
  • Practical adult classes on topics such as basic accounting for home businesses (e.g., making and selling tortillas), job search skills and parenting strategies for young mothers.
  • Construction projects: In collaboration with parents, we’ll help with a new preschool classroom and replace the faulty wiring and hazardous electrical system at the preschool.
Please consider contributing to Project Opportunity this year. Because we continue to pay our own expenses and most overhead costs, your donated dollars directly serve Nicaraguan children and families.
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Here’s how to make your tax-deductible donation:
By checkPlease make your check to: Project Opportunity  and mail to:
Project Opportunity
PO Box 22302
Seattle, WA 98122
USA
 
By credit card and Paypal:    www.projectopp.org
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Nick & Bee Say: So there you go, please consider donating to this amazing cause. It really is well worth it!

A Birthday Weekend in Paris: Part ii

Nick Says: Bonjour! We last left you drinking in Brewberry and eating midnight crepes. Sunday in Paris dawned bright, clear, but cold, and my day’s itinerary was revealed to me (Bee had planned everything meticulously). It was to be a true day of dreams, and started in the best way – by going to a nearby patisserie and grabbing some coffee and pastries. Near our hotel was the original Eric Kayser. Now a global chain spanning several continents, the first (and some say the best) is still open for business on rue Monge. Very patiently understanding our very, very, basic French, we were able to order hot drinks and delicious croissants (and maybe an extra pan au chocolat too) which we quickly wolfed down. Then it was off for a walk through the empty Sunday morning streets of Paris to the Jardin des Plantes, one of the finest parks in Paris. On the banks of the Seine, it houses many things, including an incredible Alpine garden with its own micro-climate. If you ever find yourself in this beautiful city I highly recommend an afternoon here – we barely scratched the surface.

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Our first stop-off here was to the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes. The oldest civic zoological garden in the world, it houses mid to small sized rare animals. Zoos are always slightly controversial. It’s never nice to see animals caged for our amusement, but without them these species may well die out never to be seen again. For what it’s worth, I thought the facilities here were among the better ones I’ve seen, and in many ways preferable to London Zoo, which I’m not a fan of. Apart from a sad Orangutan, none of the animals looked in any sort of distress.

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As well as the 19th century architecture, highlights in the menagerie included some sort of mountain goat whose coat was a giant white afro (disco goat), the rare and giant cassowary (razor clawed flightless birds that love to charge and attack you), and a flock of pink flamingos, who were just as smelly and bad-tempered as their wild brethren we saw in the Altiplano of Bolivia. But the best thing we both saw had to be the panthers/leopards. We just happened to miss a big crowd of people who had been watching for any signs of movement, but got bored and left. With no-one around apart from me and Bee, the panthers emerged (they had been hiding in almost plain sight). One was a big man panther, and the other an almost as big lady panther. Suddenly the man panther leapt on the lady panther, roared, then ran off to sulk in a corner. The lady panther rolled around on her back a bit, then went over to see where her bad-tempered boyfriend was. Bee asked me if they had tried to mate. I told they had. It lasted seconds. ‘No wonder he’s gone off to sulk’ replied Bee. Nobody but else had seen it. It felt pretty voyeuristic.

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Bee Says: After seeing all these glorious living animals… what better way to extend the experience than by checking them all out again… but in skeletal form! The Galerie de paléontologie et d’anatomie comparée (Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy) also sits in the stunning Jardin des Plants. Inaugurated in 1898 the collection consists of finds from collections the great expeditions of the traveller-naturalists of the 18th and 19th centuries as well as from the ménagerie that we had just visited. Through the power of Google I knew what to expect when we walked through the huge wooden front doors of the building. Nick on the other-hand had no idea, and just LOOK at his face!

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I’m not exaggerating when I say that despite seeing half of the world in the last year; this is one of the most incredible sights of them all. It’s absolutely mind boggling! To see almost every species in existance lined up amongst each other. Every bones, every vertebrae,every flipper, tail, horn and fin. From the teeny tiny birds right up to the towering elephant, whale and giraffe. There is just this in-describable atmosphere in the room; I guess from the hundreds of lives that occurred prior to becoming a gallery of Funny Bones. The museum was extremely educational; and even though it felt a bit ghoulish examining human skeletons and bones, I realised how little I knew about what I look like under all my padding. I loved the fact that the museum still feels like something from another century too; thick wood panelling and creaky floorboards and ancient labelling and phrasing. This is a real hidden treasure of Paris and one not to be missed. After taking a peek at every animal ever, there is another, quieter, floor packed with fossils and DINO bones; including a terrifying scale model of a wooly Mammoth. I am so happy those guys don’t roam around any more; they are unfathomably big (think 10 elephants stuck together – that’s the scientific description I’m sure)

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Nick Says: After all that animal time (alive and dead) it was time to cross Paris and discover more of its wonders. But this time we would be going from the almost secret, to its most famous – the Eiffel Tower. It was about an hours walk from our hotel to the tower, and a pretty nice one too – walking down the streets of Paris, imagining we lived there, popping into shops we discovered along the way and grabbing the odd coffee to warm us up and keep us going. But then before I knew it, we could spot the Eiffel Tower looming increasingly larger in the skyline. We were really about to see it! Like all iconic buildings and monuments, there’s something almost indescribable about seeing it with your own eyes. I had it the first time I saw the Sydney Opera House, Uluru, the Statue of Liberty,Michelangelo’s David, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, Tikal, and even the Hollywood sign. A thrill that runs through you, the wondrous brought to life before your every eyes and made real. It looks exactly how you imagine it, but it’s more, so much more. It’s why being an armchair tourist and a real one can never compete. We need things to be made tangible to truly affect us I think. Why is tourism the biggest industry in the world? Because of moments like this. There was the Eiffel Tower, looking exactly how I expected it to, but being so much more.

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One of the best tips I’d been given about going to the top was from my brother Chris. He said not to take the lift, and instead to climb. It’s super easy, and also cheaper. It’s 15 euros to take the lift up, but you won’t have earned those views. Instead, pay 5 euros to hike up. The first benefit is that the queue to get in is a lot shorter than for the lifts, so you’ll have less time standing around on the ground and more time admiring the view. You can only climb to the second viewing platform, which for many is plenty high enough to get the incredible atmosphere and sights of Paris, but for those who do want to go all the way to the top you can buy lift tickets without the giant queues from here. Walking up to the first platform is surprisingly easy, and you can feel the workmanship of the 300ft tower all around (did I imagine that creaking?).

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After catching your breath and admiring the view, you can then tackle the second set of stairs, which is a lot harder than the first! You definitely feel the height you’re going up above the ground here, exposed to the air (if not the elements) as you are. But then you’ve made it, and Paris looks incredible! It really did blow me away up there. Here I was, the last day of my 20s, standing in one of the most iconic spots in the world. I didn’t know how else to commemorate it than buying an over-priced miniature version of the Eiffel Tower, from the gift-shop on the Eiffel Tower itself! Inception all over.

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Bee Says: We marched home from the Eiffel Tower, watching it glittering on the horizon as we walked further and further away from it and back towards the Latin Quarter. I think I mentioned last time that this is the best area to stay in to be close to the night life and so we were keen to head out to the streets where the local spend their time, around Rue Mouffetard, for Nick’s special birthday dinner. We eventually decided that the best possible dinner choice would be something involving lots of melted cheese so headed for a beautiful, rustic looking restaurant called l’assiette aux fromages. We figured if it had cheese in the title it must know its stuff! The place had such a lovely atmosphere; all gingham and le creuset and wood panelling, with a super friendly owner who greeted us like he knew it was a special occasion. We weren’t let down as we gobbled our way through French onion soup, pate and then a giant pot of molten boozy blue cheese fondue. Oh and a bottle of their best red wine.

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We snuck out into the freezing night with warm bellies full of cheese; but as some inspiring Brazilians taught us in Manaus “the night is a child!” (we think they meant the night is young, but this has become our favourite phrase to bust out when one of us wants to stay out late) And so it was on to another creperie; but we got bored of queuing, so we headed to the Arts Bar that sits along side a quaint little courtyard and fountain. It was there that I ordered a lovely raspberry beer. Nick ordered a local beer… only to discover it was 12%! Perhaps the hint was in the name (the beer of the devil!) and Nick spluttered and squirmed his way through this delicacy. On our early hour stroll back to the hotel, we were very grateful that our home for the night was only round the corner as I think we’d walked about 15 miles in total that day! Oh… and you know that Eiffel Tower miniature we bought on the actual Eiffel Tower that Nick was so proud about? Lets just say the wine and boozy fondue combo meant that someone left it it in its box and gift bag on the floor of the restaurant. WOOPS!

Nick Says: And so Monday came around. Our last day in Paris, and also my 30th birthday! After arranging me a delicious breakfast in bed (thanks to the hotel for being so accommodating with this), Bee then pointed us in the direction of Montmatre for a day of enjoying one of the more picturesque parts of the city. Once again we walked (taking an hour or so), and you really get to see how the city changes from arrondissement to arrondissement. We went via the Moulin Rouge, which as you can see from the photo below, is pretty shit. If you’re in Paris and want to specifically see this place, my advice would be not to bother. Honestly, all I’ve said about iconic places only truly coming alive when you visit them can be disregarded here. The Moulin Rouge is far more appealing and fulfilling in the history books and in movies…

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Speaking of movies though, we also managed to get some lunch in les Deux Moulins, known better as the cafe Amelie works in. Fortunately this lived up to the hype, as beyond a few posters, and a little shrine to the film featuring props in the toilet/telephone box, it’s still very much a cafe first, tourist destination second.

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Consuming yet more cheese and wine, we then slowly made our way up to the Sacre Cour, past the hundreds of tourists (Montmatre is definitely not a peaceful place to spend a Sunday afternoon).

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It was worth it though, as the view was spectacular up here. Then all we had to do was run the gauntlet of dodgy guys trying to tie bracelets onto us as we went down the hill (the only time something like this happened while we were here) and we could march back to the Latin Quarter. Our time in Paris was drawing to a close, but we still had to time to cram in one more amazing thing – Notre Dame Cathedral. Put off by the huge queues earlier in the day, we swung by around 5pm, when we were able to gain immediate entry. Before I go on though, the day before we had walked past the hulking Gothic cathedral, as the famous bells chimed. I couldn’t help but make the obvious, ‘the bells!’ comment, only to have Bee look at me in wonder and ask, ‘is this where the Hunchback of Notre Dame is set?!’. Sometimes, for a very clever person, Bee can still amaze me.

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Inside Notre Dame was incredible, Not a place for quiet contemplation by any means, as the sheer number of sight-seeing going on puts paid to that, but a place where you can truly be in awe about the commitment to make a building like this hundreds of years ago. It was an inspiring and intimidating place.

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But then all to soon, it was time to leave. We were back at gare du nord, and checking in to Eurostar. But there was one last birthday treat – upon finding out it was my 30th birthday the impeccably stylish Frechman at the check-in upgraded me to 1st Class! Almost made me leaving my 20s behind worth it. So we sped back to the UK fuelled by more cheese and wine, and looked back at Paris as perhaps the perfect weekend city break, especially for those based in the UK. Friendlier than you’re led to believe, easily walkable, and full of incredible sights and experiences around every corner, it’s a place I’m already looking forward to returning to. I’m making a list of places I didn’t get to see – and I think that says it all.

Bee Says: Paris really did have it all; and we are already itching to go back. The main take-away I had was how friendly the city is. I am really perturbed by the reputation the locals have; because as far as I can see it is completely incorrect. It was like any capital city in a foreign place in that you get out of it what you put in. We made effort to speak the language and smile a lot; and everyone we met made an effort to communicate back and welcome us. One final Parisian note… eagle eyed blog readers might spot that yes, I was that girl that spent 3 days in Paris and wore a different striped top every day and didn’t even realise until I was coming home. I clearly own WAY too many stripes! Paris, we loved you, thank you for giving Nick the best 30th possible and maybe, kinda, beating Machu Picchu!

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A Birthday Weekend In Paris : Part i.

Bee Says: Well, it’s time to ‘fess up and admit the fact that from this moment on both Nick and I are living a serious lie. We are no longer TwentySomething (Burnouts), as this weekend Nick turned the grand old 3-0, making us both very much ThirtySomethings which definitely does not have the same ring to it. We won’t be re-branding, we will continue to live a lie and clutch to our youth, and we’d appreciate you keeping our secret! Shh! So, the bar was set extremely high for Nick’s 30th for two reasons. The first being that he took great time and effort on my 30th back in May when we went adventuring in Exmoor and the second being that, well, we spent his last birthday climbing Machu Picchu mountain which is kind of hard to beat. I had known for a while that I wanted to take Nick to Paris because he has never been (despite seeing almost all of Europe and the world!) and I haven’t been since I was a teenager; and then I went with my marvellous mum and so I haven’t done the whole city of love romantic thing! I booked the trip in June and since then have had to live with the secret which had nearly finished me off before we even stepped foot into France. Anyone who knows us in real life will know that Nick hates not knowing something and that I am the biggest northern motor-mouth when it comes to secrets. These two character traits combined led to him incessantly questioning me; and me having to basically become a mute for months in order not to spill. Finally, 5.30am on Saturday rolled around and I could give Nick his first present and breathe a huge sigh of relief, before shuttling us out of the house and onto the Eurostar.

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Nick Says: I remember asking Bee to take me to Paris even when we racing about Latin America. Despite having been to a fair few places in France over the years, I’d never quite made it to the capital. It felt like a really classic place to spend your 30th birthday, but then I threw a spanner in the works and also asked Bee to make my birthday trip a surprise. Talk about demanding… And so it was that Bee completely managed to trick me. I thought I’d blown my chance to go to Paris (and ride the Eurostar there which is half the fun of going to Europe) and I clambered into the taxi bleary-eyed but raring to go. Bee had told me we were off to an airport. But instead we drove to St Pancras, and it was off to Paris! Perfect! But of course panic set it – I couldn’t speak the language (months of Spanish had driven any lingering Francais from my head) and I was worried that Paris had a reputation for not being welcoming to us English speakers. Would the Parisians mock me? What was there to do in Paris anyway? Beyond the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre I actually knew next to nothing about the city. Luckily Bee had provided me with a guidebook, so I could spend the 2 hour journey there frantically researching. But then suddenly we arrived. We were in Paris. And of course it was all so familiar and looked incredible.It has that similar feeling to New York. You may never have been there, but of course you know Paris. You’ve seen it a thousand times, in films, on adverts, in magazines, and online. All my doubts disappeared – I was ready to get out there and start exploring the city.

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Bee Says: After a speedy whoooosh from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord, we arrived to crisp chilly air and a beautiful blue sky. We hopped in a taxi and had our first proper taste of Paris; with a driver who ranted, raved and beeped his horn wildly for the whole 15 minutes it took to reach our hotel. This did at least mean that we knew some French by the time we checked in… but only swear words. I wanted somewhere special to stay for such a special occasion, and after a lifetime of TripAdvisor stalking I opted for the boutique Hotel Atmospheres. The hotel was something I was concerned about; as I felt it could really make or break the whole weekend. Luckily any doubts were quashed with one look at the beaming receptionist who greeted us and exclaimed “Welcome to Paris!” The hotel room was chic and opulent (I now want golden glittery flocked tiles in my shower please) and nothing was ever too much trouble, with the staff endlessly going out of their way to make us feel comfortable. For such a hip hotel; it managed to maintain a sense of homeliness that we enjoyed in the better hostels on our big trip; whilst still delivering on the luxurious “treat” feeling of a really swanky establishment. It was honestly one of the best hotels either of us has ever stayed in. Jackpot! Hotel Atmosphere is in the heart of the Latin Quarter; the East London of Paris, which was the ideal location to walk to all the sights in the day but then stay close to home for the nightlife.

Having already been awake for 6 hours; we took advantage of the fluffy cloud bed for a power nap and then it was time to pound the pavements and really explore Paris! I had prepared an itinerary for each day (control freak!) which we loosely stuck to so that we could fit everything in. For our first foray into the city; we walked down to the river and across to the Marais area. This was a fantastic opportunity to start getting our bearings and a sense of how the city slots together. En route we walked past this beautiful art deco/nouveau department store which sadly seems to be sitting derelict but apparently will be renovated in the next year and revived to its former glory; which is already a good excuse to go back.

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As our bellies started grumbling, Nick used his burger-spidey-sense to lead us to Blend, Paris’ #1 Burger joint as tipped off to us by the delightful fellow burger-botherer Wish Wish Wish Carrie’s Paris City Guide. Don’t be put off if you arrive to a queue; we had three tables worth of French folk ahead of us and were still seated within ten minutes; and boy was it worth it. We both went for the signature which was a serious stack of burger, bacon, blue cheese and onion confit; with sides of sweet potato and FRENCH fries; it was a dreamy first dish and the perfect feed to set us on our way. The waitress also gave me a wink as she handed me my diet coke; I think she picked the name especially. Shucks!

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Le Marais is a stunning arts district of Paris; with historical haunts and ancient architecture around every corner. It is such a joy just to wander the cobbles and peer up, down and all around at the beautiful buildings where turrets, wooden shutters and stained glass are standard. There are plenty of original shopping arcades to potter through; now filled with independent artists, designers and fabric shops. We spent plenty of time peering in through windows of various art galleries and even watched an old-fashioned Parisian tailor creating a suit from scratch. This is still very much the artistic heart of Paris and there seemed to be an exhibition or gallery party in every other street; with the great and grand of the city spilled out onto the street sipping champagne. We weren’t bold enough (or good enough at French) to try and sneak into one! We did however pop into Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais, 75003) which was sort of a French Ikea and a rabbit warren of everything from books to crockery to homeware to clothes and stationery.

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As the sun started to dip we needed to stop for a leg-rest and Nick was keen for his first French beer, so we popped into a rickety treasure trove with a cafe lurking beneath the nik-naks.

Nick Says: A weird occurrence happened to Bee and I in France. We could not stop talking Spanish! We figure that it must be because this time last year we were basically never speaking English and by this point both nearly fluent in Español. It’s almost like now our brains default click into “foreign country. must speak Spanish to be understood.” I found it frustrating not to just be able to get by as I have been used to and it was a real wake up call to how useful it is to speak the language and how improved my Spanish got in Latin America, as when we first arrived I was reliant on Bee for everything and by the end I could get by in pretty much any situation. Back to Paris and neither of us could even remember the word for WATER (agua? aqua?) and therefore we were forced to drink only alcohol until one of us remembered to Google it back at the hotel. Unfortunately the nik-nak cafe only had Carlsberg on offer for bier drinkers, which was a disappointing start.

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We thought dusk would be a fine time to visit the Louvre, and arrived just in time to see it glowing to life. Despite being nestled amongst some pretty mighty and majestic buildings, the Louvre pyramid was still enough to make you gasp at first sight.

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Bee Says: One final port of call was the Love Lock bridge; otherwise known as the Pont des Arts bridge where lovers attach a padlock with their names on to the walls and throw the key into the Seine, locking their love forever. This is one of the more controversial tourist traps, as some locals view the padlocks as vandalism and dislike the destruction of a historical monument. In fact, earlier this year the bridge had to be evacuated as parts of the bridge started to give way under the weight of the padlocks. I however am a sucker for anything that cerebrates the GOOD in the world; romance, love, hope. Hope is so important. I was surprised how moving I found the bridge; there is a really special hush and atmosphere as people gather to read the locks already hung, and then add their own romantic gesture. There are plenty of savvy salesman peddling padlocks on the bridge (and free marker pens to personalise them) so don’t worry about doing any pre-prep.

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Throwing the key into the river felt more permanent than our engagement! I can see all sides of the argument for and against the love lock bridge, but rather than feeling like a cheesy tick-the-box part of our trip it was actually really special and a memory I’ll definitely treasure. One slightly odd and frustrating for locals (I imagine) thing, is that the locks are spreading thick and fast. I noticed them on tons of the other non-official bridges, and actually wherever there was a piece of metal, be that a gate or a fence, there would be at least one or two locks. In fact, this is a different bridge entirely by Notre Dame and it’s also almost covered. Maybe at some point all the current padlocks will have to be clipped off and set free to make space for a new wave of lovers!

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Nick Says: We had grand plans to have a slap up meal out in the Latin Quarter to celebrate our first night in Paris. Instead I discovered Brewberry(18 rue du iron pot, 75005) which is a craft beer cave, serving up a list of over 50 brews from various heavy hitters such as Evil Twin, Hoppin’ Frog, Deck & Donahue and even Brewdog. We sat down at 7pm and by midnight we were still having “just one more for the road”, having been completely sucked in by the Brewberry charm and atmosphere. There was so much choice that it would have been rude not to keep sampling everything. I tried some local pale and blonde ales and Bee got stuck into the chocolatey porter and stouts. We came to a joint love-in over some Earl Grey infused pilsner. The bar was buzzy, they played every Queen song ever (what more could you ask for) and the “Brewberry Beer Geeks” took pity on our flailing Spanglish and spoke perfect English to us as they chatted knowledgeably about every brewery and showed us the best tactics for carrying up to 8 tankards at once. We even got chatting to various customers who came and went, which really gave us that back-on-the-road community feeling we have missed so desperately from travelling. All plans for food went out the window but luckily there are crepe sellers on every corner (why isn’t this a thing in London? Should I make it a thing?) so we could stagger back to our hotel with a nutella crepe in hand and a merry beery smile at our first day in Paris.

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Bee Says: Well that wraps up day one of the birthday weekend. I just want to mention a thank you to the team over at Caxton FX travel money card; who gifted us a Europe Traveller card (complete with £50 pre-loaded, which we drank most of in Brewberry – merci!) We met the Caxton team back at a blogger event in the summer and were instantly impressed by the concept. Caxon FX is a Visa card, which means you can top it up from your bank account before your trip; and then use it in as many places as you would with your usual card (anywhere with the Visa sign… so basically everywhere) and you can withdraw money as usual from ATMs. You link your bank account to the Caxton; meaning you can top up anywhere on the road at any point without actually needing to take your current / credit cards abroad. This is so appealing to us; as security is a massive issue when travelling and there would be nothing worse than having your cards stolen and your account emptied. This method of holiday currency means you only take as much as you need, and if it’s stolen it means the damage is seriously limited. It is also very handy for budgeting! Even better still is that Caxton have a snazzy app; so you can literally top-up within a minute at any time and in any place. I’ll definitely be using my Caxton any time I head away again, and will never ever take my bank cards or huge wedges of currency abroad with me again. There are enough things to stress about when it comes to travel; and now money and currency security won’t be one.

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There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part ii.

Bee Says: We last left you having done the epic cross-country drive from Northern Riala to Norrhult in the South-East. We hired an Air B&B loft space above a gorgeous home owned by Martin and Hetty. This was my first Air B&B experience and I was blown away by it; from the chatty communication before our arrival, to the warm welcome and then to being invited into Martin & Hetty’s lounge for drinks and nattering long into the night. These hosts certainly went above and beyond their host duty; and really made the holiday extra special. Encounters with locals was what made our Latin American trip so moving; and it was brilliant to share that experience again; it’s the only chance you get to get the real story on an area, and those personal tips and recommendations. Martin & Hetty also owned two of the biggest bear-dogs I have ever seen; who despite a fearsome front then went on to lollop around our feet and welcome us too. And then… when we thought it couldn’t get any better… Martin made us breakfast. Every morning! A feast to rival any 5* hotel buffet; there was fresh coffee, yoghurt, fruit, meats, cheese, hard boiled eggs and various type of fresh homemade bread with butter, jams and insanely delicious honey. I’m slightly drooling just recounting those mornings; the prospect (and tempting smells!) of those delicious wake-ups had as all up and at ‘em extra early despite it being our holiday!

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Nick Says: Satisfyingly stuffed from breakfast each morning, we then tried to waddle around sightseeing. One of the major things to see in this part of Sweden is Kalmar. A port city, it was a big deal back in the day when it formed the border between Sweden and Denmark, It also played host to the signing of the Kalmar Union, where Sweden, Denmark and Norway stopped fighting each other and created a supergroup for a while. It didn’t last, but Kalmar made history. Now a gorgeous city to wander around in and explore for a bit (excellent cobbled squares to enjoy a hugely expensive beer in), we of course found ourselves drawn to the major attraction in town – Kalmar Castle. Well I guess we had to keep up the Medieval theme of this trip…

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Kalmar Castle is an amazingly preserved treat for any castle/ornate buildings/luxury history fans. You basically get the run of the place, and can stroll around looking into the royal bedchamber and sit on thrones at will. For both child me and adult me, this was a dream come true.

As the Swedish are so kind, everything was also helpfully explained to us in English – hugely detailed exhibitions about life at the castle meant you could spend hours swatting up on Swedish politics from the 16th century, and how the castle fitted in, or you could just admire the beautiful dresses. Or do both! But the whole castle really carried off a relaxed atmosphere in keeping with the rest of Kalmar that I really enjoyed. Plus there’s loads of rabbits leaping about the place which is always nice.

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Bee Says: We’d had a good few days on the trot that involved hour upon hour of driving. Sweden is stunning and you get to experience it so much better in a hire car; enjoying the fact that they are always playing either Robyn or Abba on the local radio… But realistically, there were five of us and so life on the road was getting pretty cooped and cosy. With our unused hiking boots and itchy feet; we requested a “stay at home” day where Sue and Nigel could head out and spot houses they had seen on Hemnet and Phil, Nick and I could do something adventure-y. We hadn’t decided exactly what, and were lurking around uncertainly when Martin swooped in and in typical nothing-is-too-much-trouble manner, offered us the loan of his canoe!

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We wheeled his pride and joy down to the lake, about ten minutes away, and got stuck in. I’d never been canoeing in my entire life and was practically delirious with excitement and giddiness! I certainly hadn’t expected this to be part of the trip and it was such an unexpected “first”. I let Phil and Nick go out first (yknow, to check it would actually float!) and then I went for my first attempt. At first I was a bit TOO keen, splish splashing all over the place and never getting in the same rhythm as whichever of the boys had been kind enough to humour me out on open water!

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After a few trips out, and one time where paddled too enthusiastically towards shore and nearly flung myself and Phil out, I started to get the knack. There was a surprising level of current on the lake, so it took a bit of huff and elbow grease to get about. This was no joy ride! Actual skill and effort is required. My favourite part was floating out to the middle of the lake and then just basking in the sun, taking in the breathtaking views and listening to the water lapping around me. Something I have missed so desperately since our big trip, is that sense of peace. It was something I started to take for granted; the remoteness, the lack of electricity, the lack of people or technology or distractions. Hurtling straight back in the London rat race and hectic city living has meant that I’d almost forgotten what it felt like just to sit back and take everything in. I loved canoeing so much I am now determined to own a lake-house and my very own (do they make them in pink?) canoe some day.

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On this out and about day, Nick and I also celebrated our three year anniversary. We sure have packed a lot in during the first bloom of our relationship, and bonding over travel has been at the heart of it all. It felt fitting to spend the day stamping around a lake and exploring foreign lands. Thank you for taking the time to read the blog and being part of our journey! I was a very lucky Fjallraven obsessive and Nick bought me an authentic Fjallraven G-1000 Foldsack No.1 FROM actual Sweden; home and heart of Fjallraven!

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I am so glad Nick had the good sense to purchase me a bag I’d actually use; rather than my first choice…

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Nick Says: After a har day adventuring, we left Bee napping in the house while me and Phil joined my parents snooping around Swedish houses. We went to one in a remote village that had been on the market for awhile, but looked lovely so we weren’t sure why. Perhaps this creepy doll that greeted you as you entered the house had something to do with putting potential buyers off?

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After fleeing the house and the doll curse it had probably put on us (if you’re reading this, it’s watching you,,,) we headed into the village to see what delights were there. The answer was not much, apart from this massive wooden spoon in the middle of a patch of grass which grandly claimed to be the world’s largest. Now I’m no expert, but I remain sceptical.It was pretty damn big though so I live in hope. Are any of our readers wooden spoon enthusiasts? Can you help answer this?! I mean, this photo doesn’t actually show the whole spoon, so for all you know it goes up a mile into the sky. Which would be amazing, if a slightly bonkers project for the Swedish spoon carvers of this unknown village to construct.

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Bee Says: I wasn’t sure what it would be like gate-crashing my future in-laws precious family holiday time. I soon remembered that Sue, Nigel and Phil couldn’t make me feel more welcome and that I had nothing to worry about, in fact it was just like being on holiday with my own relations. It was so much like being part of the family that by the final day I had morphed into one of the kids” and Nick, Phil and I rummaged through the guide books and leaflets before using the classic Lisa and Bart Simpson tactic on our poor, unsuspecting parents. “Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Can we go to the moose park? Please? Please please please?” They were powerless to our pesky ways, and agreed to take us to the moose park as long as they could go see the hand blown glass factory on the way home afterwards. With this fine compromise negotiated, we set off to Grönåsen Moose Park. The Moose Walk started off slowly and um… not very Moose orientated. We saw some chicken, some baby goats and a giant pig. Cute, but not the big guns we had in mind. We were then led into a room that house three dioramas that I can only describe a something out of a waking nightmare. They showed moose in various horrific situations; such as being eaten by wolves or, my personal favourite, hit by a car.

10597304_296097547241646_1440474282_nWe hadn’t quite expected our first moose sighting to look like this. After scuttling through the horror hall of moose death; we hit the nice bit of the park. A wooded path led us past forest, plains and fields where we could climb up look out points and take a look out for happier moose types. After a disappointing start; we were walking along a narrow pass-way trying to stay quiet as moose, I mean mice!, when suddenly we heard branches cracking next to us and suddenly a majestic female Elk was pottering along beside us. It was such a magical moment as she observed us observing her, and we all froze in our places.

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We walked another mile or so around the park, eager to get to the main attraction. They weren’t just your bogstandard moose at this park, oh no! We were about to be greeted by the King and Queen of the Moose world! Named after the King and Queen of Sweden; Karl-Gustav and Syliva awaited us and lived up to their royal reputation. At the very end of the Moose Park you were encouraged to eat… a Moose burger. Which we all found a bit weird considering we had just been enjoying these magnificent creatures in the wild. So we all politely declined.

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What a perfect final day in southern Sweden! That night we were treated to the best sunset of the holiday and another dinner of snacks and local brew beer from the ICA supermarket whilst we made the most of our cosy loft home one last time, before the giant drive back up the country to Riala.

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Nick Says: Back in the loving embrace of Stephan and Carola, we once again feasted like kings and enjoyed the companionship of friends determined to treat us to the best hospitality possible. After drinking copious amounts of wine, Stephan decided to show me and Phil the best thing of the entire holiday – this amazing documentary about a crazy group of Swedes who built an exact replica of an 18th Century sailing ship and then spent two years sailing it to China and back, where they proceeded to become huge media stars on Chinese television, Oh, and the captain of the ship was this Norwegian dude who spent most of the time topless thereby displaying his giant eagle chest tattoo. I don’t ask for much in life, but to meet that man would do it.

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Our last morning in Sweden was spent taking a walk around Riala to some of Carola’s favourite places. It’s such a beautiful country, and lakes such as the one above that we spent time admiring just demonstrate why. It had been so long since I really appreciated forest, and just how dense and magnificent it must have once been across all of Europe, Living in the UK, and especially London means you are surrounded by urban development, so it’s refreshing to spend time getting that out of your system,

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I love Sweden as a place to visit, and even though it had been over 10 years since I was last here, it felt like no time had passed at all. It’s one of those places that rewards you the more you explore. So many visitors just see Stockholm, and while that city is undeniably great, it felt like a breath of fresh air to go off-piste and see some more of this country. It’s a huge place, and seeing the south just made me want to jump in a car and head up north – where Stephan told us was really isolated. Considering we had barely seen anyone about down south, there must only be hunters and bears up there. I already can’t wait to go back and investigate.

There’s More To Sweden Than Stockholm : Part i.

Bee Says: Sweden is an extremely special place to my soon-to-be-bee-in-laws. Nigel (Nick’s dad) has a best friend called Stephan who came over for a years schooling in England and who Nigel was put in charge of looking after during that time. I don’t know how much looking after he did, as just seeing them together as adults makes it abundantly clear that there are a TON of naughty stories buried which no amount of bribery will result in either of them spilling! Stephan’s partner Carola is also a great friend of Sue (Nick’s mum) and Nigel, which means they spend a lot of time holidaying together over there. As a result, Sue & Nigel have lost their hearts to Sweden and as much-deserved retirement looms in their future, they want to have something more permanent over in Scandinavia and are planning to buy a summer house. Cue a family trip (which I was honoured enough to be invited along for) to house hunt! Introducing Team House Hunt: Nick, Sue, Phil and Nigel.

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Due to land not being a scarce resource in Sweden (it’s Europe’s third largest country), once you move away from the big cities, house prices are obscenely low and you get a lot of space (and style!) for your money. In the lead up to this trip we all got completely obsessed with a website called Hemnet; it’s worth browsing if only to admire the fairytale style gingerbread cottages and “the norm” additions of outhouses, saunas and acres of land or forest. The real point of this trip wasn’t to find an actual house, but it was really a fact-finding mission to explore a few different areas and work out scale, distances and the vibe of various neighbourhoods.  We were excited for the opportunity to get to know this beautiful country a little better; and we definitely learnt there is so much more to Sweden than Stockholm.

Nick Says: This was Bee’s first holiday with my family, and it was nice to see them spend time together outside of Christmas, birthdays etc. I came out of the loo at the airport to find the Horton’s crying with laughter and making Bee repeat the word, ‘giraffe’ before doing it themselves. For those who don’t know, Bee’s broad Yorkshire accent makes it sound like, ‘g’RAFF’.  I knew it was all going to be ok. It was also lovely to get the chance to go back to Sweden, a place I’d been to three or four times before, but not since I was a teenager. I also hadn’t been on a proper family holiday for years, so was looking forward to spending time with the parents and Phil too. Plus time off work is always nice! We flew BA like fancy folk and arrived safe and sound at the super stylish Stockholm Arlanda aioprt. While you can bus it into the city, the benefit of family holiday was splitting the cost of the car. So unlike most of our adventures in Latin America, we wouldn’t be at the whim of a crazy bus driver or tour guide…Naturally we got a Volvo (true fact, there are no other cars allowed in Sweden) and set off to Stephan’s country pad. We hadn’t set the sat nav  to Swedish, so we had a few interesting pronunciations of directions, including describing a road that sounded suspiciously like “shit the bed”…

Riala is a small village about an hour or so north of Stockholm near the major town of Norrtaelje. Like a LOT of Sweden, it’s beautiful, heavily wooded, and sparsely populated. Wolves have been known to roam in the forest, and numerous sparkling lakes are dotted about waiting to be discovered. It’s also where Stephan has set up shop after moving out of Stockholm. After a cross-country adventure in the car (thanks sat-nav!) we finally pulled in to his cosy house to be greeted by Carola waving from the porch. Stephan quickly followed, and it immediately felt like we were home.

I can remember Stephan visiting since I was about 4 years old. Him coming over was some of te=he most exciting times of my tiny life. I then got older, became a teenage, and visited him instead in Sweden. There he took me, my brothers, and my Dad around the Stockholm archipelago on his boat, and set in my mind the idea of exploring the world and having adventures.  But the last time I saw him was at my eldest brother’s wedding 10 years ago. How had so much time gone by? But in 10 years, nothing had changed. He was still the same Stephan, generous and welcoming. Crola was as brilliant and lovely as I remember. As we found on our travels, making (or having) friends in a different country really creates a strong bond and experience. It brings you closer to the place, and invests you more into it. I was really happy to be back in Sweden, and had that warm glow you get when the whole holiday stretches in front of you. I also had a incresingly warm glow from the amount of alcohol Stephan and Carola were plying us with. Wine, mysteroius local schnapps, whisky, beer… I didn’t think I could keep up with my parents and our hosts!I

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Bee Says: Safe to say there were a few sore and fuzzy heads the next morning, but these were swiftly eased as Sweden do breakfast (and well, most things) SO well. Stephan and Carola managed to be fresh daisies, despite drinking their fair share of box wine the night before, and scuttled around us making toast, hard boiled eggs and fresh coffee. We ate it with cheese, ham and freshly baked bread, although none of us indulged in the local caviar; bright orange and fresh out of a tube! All the while we could gaze out at the forest surrounding the house; Stephan says he sometimes finds curious deer and elk peering back.

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There were a few options of ways to spend our first day of the holiday, but as soon as Carola mentioned the words Medieval and Fayre, our eyes all simultaneously lit up! A short drive down to a 1330s castle (Penningby Slott) and the second we were out of the car it was like stepping into a time warp. We were all practically rubbing our eyes in disbelief as we stomped into the grounds and past knights, horses, chickens and traditional markets. Smoke filled the air and the smell of gun powder, hay and roasting meat billowed around us. The attention to detail was incredible!

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Long-time readers of the blog won’t be surprised to hear that Nick immediately sniffed out the most dangerous area of the fayre; the WEAPONRY. One field was dedicated entirely to swords, cleavers, archery, axe throwing and various other bits of kit; mostly being wielded by tiny children or people who looked like they’d already had a few glasses of mead. I loved the total lack of heath and safety that you know in a similar event in the UK would be stifling.

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The best game was one where you selected your weapon from a pile of impressive looking swords, some so heavy that the brothers could barely lift them, and then you paid 1 Kroner to have 3 chances at hitting a potato that was flung towards you on a bit of string. It seems like Nick and Phil should really be reborn in the medieval age as they were both really talented at this game and had soon attracted a crowd of locals cheering them on!

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The rest of the fayre was just as entertaining. We saw some canons and synchronised gun fire (I’m sure there’s technical term for this), ate samples of fresh soda bread, local honeys and amazing sour sugar candies. All around us were people in costumes racing around acting out little scenes or playing instruments or demonstrating olden time crafts. The weirdest of which was a game where we paid 1 Kroner to guess which way a mouse would run around a miniature castle, in order to win a magic stone. Sadly, we didn’t win and the mouse didn’t even look too happy about defeating us.

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As we started to grow a little weary and ready for some afternoon fika, napping and reading; there was one final treat in store for us. We stamped over to the castle to take a look at the amazing building and the horses roaming around outside, when suddenly I spotted something on the horizon staggering towards us. MEDIEVAL BABY! Definitely the best bit of the day; if not the holiday.

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Nick Says:  What could possibly top a Medieval Fayre? Not a lot that day as it turned out.  We drove onto Norrtaelje to have a look round, and while undeniably beautiful the spectacular sunshine which had been shining on us so far decided to turn into miserable rain. Which reminded Phil that he hadn’t actually brought a coat on this trip. Still, nothing that an on-brand visit to H&M couldn’t fix!

After a slightly less boozy evening at Stephan’s, the next day we were due to drive down south to begin the house hunt. While Carola had to go back to work, Stephan had decided to take a couple of days off and travel down with us. He immediately commandeered me, Bee, and Phil for his car (a giant monster 4×4, which didn’t look out of place in the giant landscapes of Sweden, unlike the tiny streets of London where I usually see them) we set off down the packed highways (about 4 cars spotted all day). We drove through tunnels which bored into mountains, skirted past endless forests, and eventually came to a service station where I could indulge two of my Swedish passions. The first was a Winner Taco, the greatest ice cream ever invented and sadly no longer available on our shores, ans the second was a cinnamon bun. I also took the time to smash my head on a metal bar while scampering up a children’s slide I was too big for, almost knocking myself unconscious and certainly giving myself a case of mild concussion which I felt for the next few days. Go holiday injuries! It also resulted in me being banned from driving (thanks for nothing head injury) which also meant I was relegated to the back of the car. Bee swiftly sat up front and quickly assured Stephan she would be the official elk spotter on this leg of the journey. It was a grand speech about howshe was honoured to be in Sweden, couldn’t wait to see the mighty elk, and would be his eyes on the side of the road. Powerful stuff. I looked back about two minutes later to find she had instantly fallen asleep instead.

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Bee Says: After nearly 8 hours on the road we finally pulled off the motorway and into a truly picturesque little lake town called Norrhult (Phil said it was like “driving through Hemnet!) where our Air BnB awaited. We had rented the top floor apartment of a home belonging to a super chirpy Dutch couple who had recently moved to Sweden. They were full of handy local tips and knowledge, and showed us to the gorgeous little grotto that we would be calling home for the rest of the week. After a quick trip to the local ICA for beer and snacks, we settled in to watch the sun dip over the lake from our window and started planning for the week ahead.

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Tune in for part 2 next weekend, which sees us meet the King & Queen Elk of Sweden, have a close encounter with the worlds biggest wooden spoon, find some creepy bits and pieces during our house hunts AND… my first ever time in a canoe. Who wants to start placing bets on whether I fell in or not?!

Land’s End to John O’Groats: Britain in 10 Days

Nick Says: I recently went on a trip. Without Bee. Shocking as that may sound to readers of the blog, we do actually go off and explore places without the other. In particular, I like to go on ‘Brother Adventures’. For those that don’t know, I have 3 brothers. In age order, we are Joe, Chris, Me (Nick), and Phil. We all like to explore. Previous trips have included over-landing from the Czech Republic to Albania, and a road-trip around Western Europe (which you can watch here). This time, we decided to take on Land’s End to John O’Groats via A & B roads. We had 10 days, a somewhat unreliable old car, and a lot of miles to tackle.

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It was great to explore Britain, and especially excellent to properly see the country I live in (most of the time anyway). It had been something I’d really wanted to do even when marvelling at Latin America, and let me tell you it did not disappoint. So here’s a round-up of 10 manic days that involved a Cornish miner called Percy, giant cream teas, setting the car brakes on fire, recording a special road-trip song, watching incredible Peak District sunsets, getting hissed at by an owl, punched by a dog, drunkenly debating Scottish independence over whisky, and visiting the smallest street in the world…

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The trip started in Cornwall, as all good Lands End to John O’Groats journeys probably should. After picking up Joe from his home in Somerset (via Stonehenge) we sped on our way to Penzance. I shocked my brothers by admitting I’d never been to Cornwall in my life. I’d always meant to go, but ended up staying in Devon and never quite making it. So I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was a part of England culturally and geographically unique from the rest of the country. Palm trees abounded down here, the coast looked like it belonged in the Mediterranean, and the people were fiercely proud of their heritage.

After a night in Penzance which involved eating at a pirate themed (a very loose theme) meadery, we went for a few drinks in the local pubs. The tip from a barman at a rival pub led us to the Dock Inn, which I highly recommend. Then on a balmy stroll back, Chris asked myself, Joe, and Phil to be his Best Men at his wedding. Huzzah! Brothers unite! A great start to the trip indeed.

The next day dawned a bit fuzzy, but there was no time to rest. In fact there would be not time to rest on the entire trip. We drove down to a misty Land’s End, where we snapped the obligatory pics, added a UK Man Voyage twist to the sign, and went to a weird Brian Blessed voiced Search for King Arthur interactive thing. I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to be going on for most of it, but it was nice to hear Brian Blessed booming tones shouting at us and wishing us well on the trip (might have imagined that last part).

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Next stop was Porthcurno and the incredible Minack Theatre. A labour of love for the incredible (and possibly slightly barmy) Rowena Cade, the theatre is an open-air amphitheatre built into the cliff-face. With the gorgeous beach at Porthcurno and its beautiful turquoise water as a backdrop, it felt truly like we were in another country. In fact, the stage of the Minack had a certain Game of Thrones quality about it, so it felt like we were on another world! I could have happily spent hours exploring the place, but we had only 45 minutes to make it to the Poldark Mine. The clock was counting down. Mine me!*

The Poldark Mine was a true highlight of the trip. Mining really is the big thing in Cornwall, and this mid-sized former tin mine is one of the few you can go down and have a real nose around. Recently taken over by an eccentric chap who introduces the tour, the real star beyond the underground marvel you descend into is your guide. Percy is a proper Cornishman who is proud of his heritage and LOVES his mine. His tour as it stands is well worth your time and money, as he is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about everything, but his ideas for an extreme mining tour would be brilliant if they pan out. So go there and demand it. And post a letter from the UK’s deepest mail box while you’re at it.

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We finished up the first day by camping in Paidstow. Picturesque and lovely, and complete with Rick Stein’s fish & chips, this was quintessential Cornwall. The bar had been set pretty high for the rest of the country. The next day we were heading to Taunton to drop Joe back home, and decided to take a look at Tintagel and some of Devon along the way. After admiring the castle ruins, we tucked into a Cornish pasty by a car park, and zoomed on. Devon for us was dramatic to say the least. We stopped at Lynton and Lynmouth, rode the funicular railway (piloted by Blake, one of the coolest men in the UK) and then treated ourselves to cream tea. Which was absolutely bloody massive. Honestly, the scone was the size of my head. Me and Joe heroically battled through it and finished the beast, while Chris and Phil were overcome and outfaced by its size and admitted defeat. I expected more.

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As we drove through the Quantocks a couple on a motorbike shot past us at a crazy speed. 10 minutes down the road we had to break heavily on a steep hill due to an accident up ahead. You can probably guess who had been involved. Thankfully it didn’t look to be fatal, but it unnerved us. The fact that the brakes on the car started pouring smoke at the same time probably didn’t help either, and it was with some relief we managed to limp into Taunton and safety that evening.

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Our car, named ‘the Van’, is an old diesel VW Polo given to my brother Chris by our Great-Uncle Hubert. Chris has driven it everywhere, and if a man can love a car, then Chris loves the Van. They’re buddies, amigos, besties. But this was looking like it would be his last voyage. So I couldn’t help but feel like the Van was punishing us for daring to suggest he no longer had it; after the brakes incident he then decided to make his wing mirrors fall off. As Phil pointed out, as we stopped for a extended period in Taunton the following day in order to tape up the broken mirrors, a lot of our problems and delays on the trip could probably have been avoided with another car. But would it have been as fun? Probably not.

After saying farewell to Joe and finally leaving Taunton, we spent the day heading up to the Peak District via the Cotswolds. England was truly putting on a show for how beautiful it was, and we were lapping it up. Apart from the bit where we had to eat Ginsters sausage rolls sat in the window seat of an A-Road petrol station. That was a low-point. But the jumbo jet graveyard we randomly drove past made up for that.

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After seeing an awe-inspiring sunset across what seemed to be the whole of the Peak District, we finally rolled into Hayfield and the Kinder Lodge. Famous for being the location of the actual village in the BBC drama ‘The Village’, Hayfield is another classic British location. Which was to be a recurring theme of the trip. All these vastly different places, people, and traditions, but all instantly recognisable as ‘British’. Which I guess is the strength of this country. You can take each individual element and have a brilliant time, but together it’s the best. Yay UK!

The next morning we paid a visit to Chris’s friend and occasional band-mate James. While he was supposed to be working, we quickly put a stop to that and instead suggested we recorded a song to commemorate the trip. It turned out pretty good, so watch this space for a link to the finished track. Soundtracked by ourselves, we then drove on into Yorkshire, paid a quick visit to the marvelous Yorkshire Sculpture Garden (well worth a visit) and then arrived into Bradford, where Bee and her family would be hosting us for the night. Which reminded me, just what had Bee been up to while I’d been gone?

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Bee Says: As this was the official “Man Voyage” I had to be respectful not to turn into the equivalent of (in Chris’ words!) “The bit where Ewan McGregor’s wife comes along and surprises him and RUINS EVERYTHING in The Long Way Down” so after welcoming the travel weary lads to my parents house, I got taken out for a fanceh Thai meal with my mum and dad, whilst my little brother took the Horton boys off for some craft beer at Fanny’s in Saltaire and then on to a curry. I had obviously hyped Bradford’s curries up to epic, unbeatable proportions so we had to laugh when it dawned on us that the day was actually… Eid. And therefore the single day of the year that most curry houses are closed! Luckily after a few frantic phone calls, a back up option was located. After my meal, we waited for the guys to come back so we could all share some wine and my mums speciality; CHEESY WHIRLS (buttery pastry mixed with a ton of cheese, served piping hot from the over and melt in the mouth addictive!). We waited.. and waited… and suspiciously neither my brother or Nick’s phone seemed to be working. Eventually they rolled in, a little bit merrier than us but I was happy to see Bradford had been such a highlight and stood up to the stiff competition of the trip so far. For the rest of the week I pretty much spent my time either in the bath, reading, wearing PJs, watching Cat Fish with Lol and um… eating cheesy whirls. Guess who was most rested at the end of the week?!

Nick Says: Top marks to Bee’s brother Tim for showing us the best of Bradford. Foolishly timing our trip for Eid, we found many of my favourite curry houses shut for the holiday. But luckily the Rajpoot was open for business, and a fine time was had by all, even if the waiter was potentially wired on coke. He really, really, really, wanted to show how fast he could tap the buttons on the till.

Next up was the Lake District, and returning the Van to its ancestral home of Workington, Cumbria. Great-uncle Hubert lives up there, so it was only right and proper we paid him a visit and showed off his former motor. He was pretty impressed with how well Chris had looked after it, and gave him his seal of approval. Good work Chris!

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Driving through the lakes we really started to feel the terrain becoming more wild and mountainous. Scotland was beckoning. But, only after another night of camping, drinking rum while sat in the Van and taking the ugliest selfies we possibly could, and a morning visit to the Cumberland Pencil Museum; home of the biggest colour pencil in the world.

We picked up the scenic A7 and headed towards Scotland. It felt odd that this could be the last time any of us would visit Scotland and still be touring one country. The independence debate would permeate a lot of our time up there, and be discussed with some passion. I’ll repeat here what I said to the vociferous ‘Yes’ supporters, ‘I can understand why you would, but please don’t go – I think we’re better together’.

Our aim for the first night in Scotland was to head over to Glasgow to soak up the Commonwealth Games atmosphere. Trouble was, there were a lot of people wanting to do the same. After a panicked hour or so trying to find accommodation (a search carried out in a roadside Holiday Inn while powered by Irn Bru), we finally found a slightly shabby hotel in Falkirk. Intrigued by the fact that Falkirk was named Scotland’s prettiest town in 2011, we set off to explore.

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Now I don’t know who Falkirk’s opposition was in 2011, but I would never ever want to visit them. Falkirk, while it has several charms, is not exactly ‘pretty’. It does though have the Kelpies, the biggest horse statue in the world, so that makes up for a lot. And they really are bloody massive statues of horses. But it also had excellent transport links to Glasgow, and we were quickly on the train and on our way.

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We’d had nothing but beautiful weather our entire trip, so of course it absolutely sheeted it down as soon as we turned up in Glasgow. That didn’t seem to dampen things though, and we explored the city and caught some of the games on the big screen. While obviously on a smaller scale, I was instantly transported back to the  2012 Olympics, my favourite ever time to have lived in London. Everyone in Glasgow seemed really keen to show off the city at its best, and help three lost brothers get around to where they needed to go. I’m a big fan of Glasgow, and now also a big fan of a Chris recommendation, The Hillhead Book Club. Next time I go I hopefully won’t be on a budget and exhausted from several relentless days on the road…

It was into the Highlands the day after, and yet another amazing looking National park – the Cairngorms. Trying to overtake the slow moving trucks with an equally slow moving old Polo proved tricky, but luckily that just gave us more time to soak up the scenery. The plan for the evening was to find a remote wild camping spot and live the off-the-grid Scottish dream. Except it proved really hard to find somewhere remote enough. We drove through Newtonmore, Kingussie, and Aviemore, only to be told there was nowhere we could camp where we wouldn’t be chased away from by angry shot-gun wielding land-owners. Hmm, didn’t sound peaceful and relaxing to me. Admitting defeat, we decided to head to a organized campsite. Except they then turned out to all be full. All we got was vague instructions to follow a Dutch guy who was heading to a car park where we could wild camp. Or something. So we got in the Van, and sped off after him. He led us to Loch an Eilen. I curse that name.

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At first it was beautiful… and everything we hoped for. A stunning loch, and a space to pitch our tent. Sure it was by a car park, but it was wild and we were free! We set up camp. But it was August in Scotland. It was the time of the midgie (or ‘midget’ as a Dutch girl corrected a German guy). At first a few appeared. Then hundreds. Then thousands. We couldn’t breath without spluttering midgie. They were everywhere. In our mouths, our hair, our clothes. OH GOD THE HORROR. Phil tried to brave it out and got in the tent. Chris broke down and revealed this was one of the worst experiences of his life. I stood there in stunned silence not quite believing the living nightmare I was experiencing. We obviously cracked, and took down the tents. We drove as fast as we could away, but the midgies had got in the car. It didn’t stop. It would never stop.

A few hours later, and another panicked search for accommodation, we found ourselves back in Newtonmore at the incredibly friendly Strathspay Mountain Hostel being roared at by owner Laurie, a big Scot with a dubious ginger wig. Life had improved immeasurably. Tomorrow it would get even better, as we were due to go to the Clan MacPherson Highland Games.

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The games proved everything we hoped for. While the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may have had world class athletes striving against each other in top level competitive sport, it didn’t have massive men with beards tossing the caber. It also didn’t have a team from the USA competing either, and as we saw during the first event (which involved sticking a garden fork in a hay bale and tossing it over a bar) the Americans take their Highland Games very seriously indeed. They even had their own special garden forks! When not watching big men straining their muscles and chucking things, we found time to admire the kilts, eat horrible chips, and watch Chris get hisses at by an owl. Which was an odd experience to say the least. The best part though, was the Clan MacPherson march, where massed bagpipers and drummers played a spine-tingling melody as they strode down the road. I’d never been that close to so many bagpipes before, and I’ll never forget how incredible it sounded.

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But with no time to waste, we were off again the next day. After a quick stop at the excellent Highland Folk Museum to see how the Scots lived through the ages (in dark windowless huts full of peaty smoke) and another at Loch Ness, we headed up to our hostel for the night. No more chancing it with wild camping or panicked ring rounds of local hostels for us this night, we had actually got organized and booked somewhere. Full marks to Phil for picking this place – and what a place it was – a really unique hostel called Sleeperzzz in the village of Rogart, about halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats. What makes it so unique is the fact that the rooms are converted First Class railway carriages, complete with kitchen, living room, and showers. There was sadly no space for us on the train though, which meant we had to settle for this brilliant converted 1950s bus instead – which just happened to sleep three. Perfect! For £16 each a night, it was probably the best value accommodation of the trip. It also gave us the opportunity to drink more whisky with locals in the village pub, and get into a pretty spirited debate about independence with a Glaswegian guy. He was very much pro leaving the UK. He liked to express this in a sometimes friendly, sometimes slightly terrifying, and at all times sweary manner. Then at the end of the night the landlady let a pack of about 7 dogs into the pub, who were the most excitable dogs that have ever lived. Me and Chris (drunk at this point) decided the best thing to do would be to leap in the middle of this already wild pack of animals and start jumping around with them. So it was probably no surprise when one of the hounds punched me…

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Then it was day 10 of the trip, and our final run up to John O’Groats. With everyone feeling slightly worse for wear, we stopped in at Wick (the last major town that side North on the mainland) for Irn Bru and sausages. Wick also gave us the chance to see the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place, which occupies all of 2 metres and houses one address, No. 1 Bistro, part of Mackays Hotel. Then fuelled up on sugary orange drinks we pressed onwards to our goal – John O’Groats!

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It was pretty emotional when we finally pulled up to the end of the road. I’m not afraid to admit I was a bit choked up as I got out the car. A lot more chilled out and rugged than the tourist bonanza at Lands End; John O’Groats was a great place to finish the trip. It had been an amazing last 10 days and a chance to experience Britain in way I’d never done before. I had spent 6 months (and most of my adult life before that) flinging myself across the world and soaking up other cultures, but never really stopped to appreciate this truly special island we live on. It’s as beautiful, wild, interesting, and surprising as anywhere else on the planet, and for all its faults, I’m lucky to call it home.

*top marks if anyone gets that paraphrased reference btw. It was an inspiration for the trip.

Birthday Surprise at Cutthorne House, Exmoor

Nick Says: Being back in the UK at long-last hasn’t cured us of any sort of wanderlust; in fact it’s just made it more amplified! So of course it wasn’t long after we touched back down and moved back to London that we were zooming off again, but this time to explore the amazing wilds of our own country. Taking the time to explore what we had at home had been something we were both very keen to do after our tropical adventure, and the fact that it was Bee’s birthday (a very special one too) gave us the perfect excuse to hightail it away from the city.

Planning this trip had been a long time in the making. All the way back in South America actually… Bee had asked to go away for her birthday weekend, and had a few requests! It needed to be in the wilderness, have the opportunity to do some star-gazing, and also put on a great cream tea. So I sent off this wish-list to Bee’s mum who kindly offered to do some research, and in the end found the perfect place; Cutthorne House in Exmoor, voted one of the Top 10 Most Remote Hotels in England and Top 20 Wild Places to stay in the UK. It looked to be perfect, and I couldn’t wait to surprise Bee with a trip to somewhere she had no idea where she was going (despite asking a LOT of leading questions).

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Bee Says: We set off nice and early, making packed lunches to take in the car. I knew nothing about where we were going other than it was in the UK (no passport required, for once!) and that I had to scrunch my eyes shut when Nick typed in the end destination to the sat nav. Luckily, as I haven’t driven for over 8 years and am a Yorkshire lass, my sense of Southern geography is atrocious. I soon figured out we were heading west… but wasn’t actually sure what was in the west, so it made for a pretty easy surprise. I get so lucky with my birthday every year in terms of weather, and this one was no different. We got great van-man-tans on opposing arms as the glorious English countryside zoomed past, all green and yellow and spring-ing into life. After smooth sailing for a couple of hours, we hit some mega traffic. We sat and sat and sat, inching along with our tummies starting to rumble and our bladders starting to wish we were closer to a service station. And then! We saw what all the fuss was about. It was because we were about to pass this pile of pebbles:

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It always amazes me how close Stonehenge is to the motorway, and suddenly idling away in the sticky jam of cars was all worth while. Before long we were back on the magical mystery tour and it was time to take a lunch break. One of the things I always hold dear to my heart as quintessentially British, is our very special brand of service stations. Everything about them fills me with a patriotic pride, even though I know they are a bit grotty and flawed. I LOVE Little Chef, I love the shopping arcade bits with everyone milling around buying magazines and overpriced water and car sweets. I love the feeling that you also get in airport departure lounges; everyone if having some sort of adventure and on some sort of journey. We ramped up the awfully British service station experience by choosing to eat our cheese and chutney sandwiches whilst sat IN the boiling hot car, IN the car park. Why do we do this to ourselves?! But true to form the family sat in the car parked facing us were doing the same, so we all awkwardly avoided eye contact whilst munching away. A quick mooch around the Spa led to my rediscovery of the BEST crisps ever (Cheese & Onion Squares) so I bought myself 3 grab bags that I demolished in one sitting; by now I was embracing a regular theme to the weekend; “it’s my 30th so I can do exactly what I want!” – Poor Nick ey?

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Back on the road we passed through Taunton and then suddenly life and civilisation seemed to drop away entirely. One moment we were passing sports centres and banks and schools, the next we were on a seemingly never-ending road that was winding it’s way further through wide open plains, patches of straggly copse and not a soul in sight. It was so dramatic and actually unlike anything I saw on our entire Latin America trip. That familiar creeping feeling of total isolation and wilderness was creeping in. The road continued and it began to be skirted by tall, fairytale-esque bramble bushes and thick gnarled trees that met in the middle of the road creating a dark canopy as we zoomed along. We hadn’t seen another car for miles when suddenly the sat nav showed us the “chequered flag” and apparently we had arrived! Except we hadn’t. We were still in the middle of nowhere. It turns out the postcode hadn’t been specific enough for the sat nav so it had just led us to somewhere in the general direction. A quick check confirmed my suspicions; no phone signal. And then the sat nav announced it had no signal either and promptly gave up the ghost. It was time to revert to more traditional methods aka follow the sign to somewhere that sounds like people live there and ask directions. This worked a treat and after a 30 minute detour, we finally eased the car down the farm path to Cutthorne House.

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Nick Says: The place itself was absolutely perfect for what I was after. Dark and quiet, it was the perfect antidote to our already full-on London lives. One of the first things we did was take a walk to explore the property. Not only do you get to stay in an amazing old manor, you also get access to some incredible scenery too. We strolled down to the lake, taking care not to enrage a local goose who appeared to be on guard duty. The sense of peace just radiated from the ground upwards. Exmoor is wild and wonderful, and the type of place you could easily imagine getting lost in for days on end. Which is exactly what we spent the next few days doing. Having access to a car was a must here, as we were able to pick and choose our walks on a tight timetable, but leave plenty of time for lounging around and soaking up the views from the front lawn of Cutthorne House.

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Bee Says: Nick had done SO good! An ancient old house dating from 1397 in the heart of Exmoor; a place I had never been before but had always wanted to visit. And the best part? We were the only guests in the whole house. The hotel has three rooms, so it was never going to be heaving, but to have the run of the place made everything extra enchanting and wild. I could barely believe my eyes as I scampered around inspecting the 4-poster bed, the decadent bathroom and the beautiful, quaint details hiding in every corner.

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The hotel is run by Pam, Anne and Phil. Something that makes this hotel unlike any other I have experienced; is that the owners encourage you to use it like your own home. We were free to come and go as we pleased; and not just feel confined to our bedroom (although it was a heavenly bedroom!) but to use the lounge, the dining room and the gardens & grounds as much as we wanted. Pam also informed us that whilst there was a key, it was completely un-necessary to lock our doors given that we were the only guests. After 6 months of Latin American hostels and the cloud of fear that constantly surrounded the safety of our belongings; leaving the door open went against all our instincts but really summed up the laid back and family atmosphere of the whole place.

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On my 30th birthday I woke up and the first thing I did was tuck into a giant full English. Cutthorne pride themselves on only serving locally sourced, organic produce. And boy could you taste it! Next I was desperate to get out into the beautiful countryside that was winking at us from every direction. A quick natter to Anne and she recommended a local hike to Dunkery Beacon.

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Nick Says: Dunkery Beacon is the highest point on Exmoor. Located a convenient 20 minute drive from Cutthorne, we squeezed into a parking spot and began our ascent. While Bee was smugly kitted out in outdoor boots, mine had been donated to a man in Guatemala and instead I was left with my Mexican-mall Vans. Not the best footwear for the trek. We’d also forgotten to bring water with us, proving that we’d taken on-board ZERO lessons from hiking in Latin America. Our return to the UK had made us weak. But still we bounded enthusiastically up the hill, and marvelled at the incredible view of the Bristol Channel at the top. We constantly take it for granted, but we really do live in one good looking country. I just wish we had more time to explore it all!

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Bee Says: It felt so good to be out in the moors with wind whipping my hair and a 360 degree view of the luscious British scenery that we had missed so much. After stomping about and having a good ramble around Exmoor, we drove back ‘home’ to Cutthorne. I am not embarrassed to admit that the rest of my special birthday was then mostly spent like this (gotta love a hotel that gives you cocoa-making equipment in your room) I mean c’mon, I had had a pretty adventurous year leading up to this…

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(Just realised this book sounds a bit raunchy if you read the text in the photo. I don’t think it was particularly, I just snapped a saucy page!) The sun was shining, so I switched up coseying up on the couch in the front room, with sitting out in the garden. I was sat with my nose in my non-rude book when suddenly lovely Anne appeared from the house holding a gorgeous bunch of flowers and a box of Belgian chocs! Little did I know that Nick had been plotting and planning this surprise behind my back, and amazingly the hotel had helped him pull it off. I was so gobsmacked and it was a really special moment.

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The highlight of the day definitely rolled around at night though. Given that the hotel is 2miles from the nearest village, it’s highly recommended to take them on up their daily hotel dinner offering. I remember Nick had fretted about whether to book this, as he wasn’t sure it was special enough. In actual fact, it was one of the best meals of my life! Because we were the only guests, we had the gorgeous dining room to ourselves, and were in the top table all cosied up to a roaring open fire. We were then served an exquisite 4 course meal by Anne, all freshly made on the AGA. The food had that just-picked-today freshness and the portions were wildly generous. The cherry on top was that they even had our favourite Chilean wine, to bring a little bit of our travel memories to the table with us. By the time the cheese platter came out, we were absolutely groaning with that pleasure/pain of being insanely full.

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We just had enough energy to roll ourselves out to the back garden to marvel at the stars. Exmoor National Park was designated the first International Dark Sky Reserve in Europe. A dark-sky reserve is an area that is kept free of artificial light pollution; resulting in incredible astronomy opportunities. Being star gazy geeks, we are keen to visit all and any dark-sky spots in Europe and this was a great place to start. It was a little cloudy, so no chance to spot a shooter, but it was still an impressive smattering of sky sparkles.

It felt like the second we’d got settled, it was time to return to the hubub of London. We were so relaxed in fact, that we managed to leave an impressive array of worldly possessions behind; including my kindle, iphone charger and birthday cards. Luckily Nick remembered about 20 minutes into our drive home, so we returned to collect the bits and have one last pet of the adorable hotel dog!

Nick Says: Driving back I had one last surprise for Bee, a quick visit to my brother Joe and his family. It was great to see my new niece again (even if my face scared her and made her cry) and hang out with his wife Mel and my nephew Riley. And the best bit of this added secret Taunton trip was that Joe and Mel were able to lay on a Cream Tea – completing the birthday wish-list from Bee!

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Bee Says: I couldn’t have wished for a better birthday break, and it certainly rivalled our Latin American adventures. I’m already looking ahead in the calender to future occasions that I could use as an excuse to return to Cutthorne, as it felt like our own secret little piece of wilderness heaven. My soon-to-be-sister-in-law Mel has grown up in the West Country and was telling me some amazing myths and legends and spine tingly spooks about Exmoor. I’m such a sucker for real life mysteries and most haunted type tales. She told us that the never-ending road we initially got lost on is haunted by the white clad phantom of a George Sydenham, who rides a headless white horse along the road towards Monksilver; the place we eventually got directions (not from a headless horseman thank goodness) and then there is the Valley of The Rocks which is a local beauty spot. According to Everything Exmoor The valley with its unusual turrets of rock is home to a herd of native British goats. The valley, legend says, was the location of the devil’s castle and while he was away his wives took part in a naked drunken orgy with a neighbour. On finding out what had happened on his return he turned the women into the turrets of rock and destroyed the castle. So now you know! I love that so much of this folklore is inspired by the dramatic nature and isolation of Exmoor. If I ever wanted to write a ghost story, I would definitely head straight there for inspiration.

The Dollar Challenge: What will a buck get you in every Latin American country?

Bee Says: Before we went travelling, we got a few nice farewell gifts. For example, Nick’s dad gave us two identical emergency blankets, which luckily we could return to him unused at the end of our trip. Meg got me a nifty pink Leatherman and a super strength head torch. My favourite gift of all was from my good friend (and now member of Team Bridesmaid) Kerry. She works in a bureau de change, and knows ever-y-thing about currency and foreign moneys. She had the genius idea of presenting us with 15 dollar notes before we left; one for each country we would be visiting and she set us the great dollar challenge. We were to report back on what we felt was the best purchase we made for a dollar in each country. Not only was this just a really interesting project to keep us out of trouble, but it also really helps to highlight the strength of the dollar in different countries and the comparative wealth between them. So thank you Kerry for being such a smart cookie – check out her lovely Leeds foodie blog here, and we hope you (and everyone else) enjoy the results.

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1. VENEZUELA – GUARAPITA OVERLOAD

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Bee Says: Ah Venezuela, the first country we visited and which remains right in the top spots of our all-time favourite destinations. Whilst we were there, the exchange rate wobbled massively in our favour and meant it was the richest we were in any country. While the official rate was 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market had exploded and gave us rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. To put this in context, a beloved bottle Polar beer cost around 30p! But our first winner for the great Dollar Challenge had to be our discovery of guarapita. Whilst flicking nervously through our South America on a Shoestring guide book on the flight to Caracas, my magpie eyes spotted a recommendation for a local Venezuelan cocktail; a combination of rum with passion fruit. On our last night in Puerto Colombia, we decided we had to go seek out this mysterious drink and see what all the fuss was about. I marched up to a van selling booze on the street and ordered two guarapitas (in my fumbling just-off-the-flight Spanish) and the guy behind the bar lifted out TWO huge litre bottles of orange stuff. Realising my mistake I quickly explained I only wanted two CUPS of guarapita. This was still misunderstood as I was passed a litre bottle with two empty plastic beakers! I was about to explain further, when the chap told me the price and the litre bottle cost… yup! About 75cents.

As you can see from the very legitimate old Russian Vodka bottle it came in, guarapita is brewed in someone’s back garden and certainly tasted as you’d expect. Heavy on the rum, less so on the fruit. We sat on a low wall next to the harbour, watching the sunset and the birds swoop and the locals coming out to dance on the street to music that an old car was playing from a huge sound system. One glassful had our cheeks rosey. Two glassfuls had our hearts thudding and by glass number three we both swore we could feel our hangovers already creeping in; so we donated the rest to some people next to us and staggered back to our hostel.

2. BRAZIL – HOT SAUCE SAVIOUR

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Nick Says: While the World Cup may be coming to an end, it’s been great to see images of Brazil on TV and all over the place for the last few weeks. Particularly Manaus, where we got to spend a week or so whilst waiting for our boat down the mighty Amazon. But we found Brazil a fair bit more expensive than Venezuela, thanks to the fact it isn’t in such dire economic and political turmoil as its neighbour… However, most things were a bit more than a dollar here, until we shopped for last minute supplies for the boat ride at a supermarket  (Carrefour!) and found some bargain hot sauce. While the 4 day boat trip through the Amazon was undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire trip for us, it was the hot sauce that got us through it. A meal of bland beans, rice, and either chicken or beef twice a day quickly becomes tiresome, unless you just happen to have a bottle of fiery pepper sauce lying around. Then you suddenly become everybody’s best friend – which isn’t a bad thing on a boat where robbery isn’t entirely unknown… But 4 days of hot sauce changed me as a man. Before I was a bit bemused to watch Bee slather every meal with it. Now I’m right there with her, drowning any carefully prepared culinary delight in hot sauce (habanero preferably).

3. BOLIVIA – MICRO 4, THE ENDLESS BUS RIDE TO DINOSAURS

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Bee Says: Bolivia took us from Sugar, to Salt, to Stars and then up to the witch markets of La Paz and the epic Incan terrain of Isla del Sol. Our money certainly went furthest in Bolivia, and we reached the end of our month in the country under budget. It occasionally felt like it was actually hard to spend money, and this is probably demonstrated best by our adventure on the micro 4! Before we left for our travels we had been given a few “Top things to see before you die”, “50 Best bits of the world” type travel books and it was in one of these that we learnt we could walk with dinosaurs in Sucre, Bolivia at El Parque Cretácico (Dinosaur Park!!!) In most of Bolivia one mode of transport is a “micro” – a small mini bus that drives a circuit of the town but that can drop passengers at other spots on route for a few extra Boliviano. The micro’s are varying in quality, we saw one with a hole in the floor through which you could watch the road zoom underfoot (!) but they are generally a cheap, safe(ish) and easy way to navigate the city. We knew the number 4 micro would take us to the Dinos, so hopped on and asked the driver, who nodded. Twenty minutes later, we pulled in to a millitary zone and it was clear this was the end of the line. The driver waved us off up a dirt path with no dinosaurs in sight. Eventually we stumbled across a beautiful palace like building, and as we entered we were told we were at The Castillo de la Glorieta. NO DINOSAURS HERE! I think maybe the driver had different ideas about the Bolivian culture we should be soaking up so had basically forced us to his favourite tourist spot? Either way we had a look around, meeting a group of school kids in there who ALL wanted their photos taken with the weird muy blanco foreigners! But, we really wanted dinosaurs, so we walked back to where our driver had dumped us and were told that yes, the parque was on the micro 4 route, but the opposite end of the line! We boarded a new 4 and 45 minutes later we had basically seen the whole of Sucre for about 60p and were finally at our desired destination.

4. CHILE – HAIRY LITTLE LLAMA MAGNET

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Nick Says: Chile has stated aspirations to be a ‘first world country’ in the next few years. It already feels like it’s there to be honest. It is the strongest economy in South America, and easily felt the most prosperous of all the places we visited. But as a result, it was also the most expensive of all the Latin American nations we went to. Making it even more expensive was the fact we had pitched up in San Pedro de Atacama – the major tourist destination in all of Chile. So while we managed to live as cheaply as possible (street food served in cage, delicious red wine from origin) it was pretty tricky trying to find something that matched the dollar challenge. But then we saw it, eyeing us up inside a tourist tat/artisan craft shop. It wanted to be bought. And it got its wish, and now lives on our fridge – becoming the Chile instalment of our other challenge, buying a fridge magnet from every country we visited.

5. PERU – HUANCHACO PIER (DAY OFF FROM BEING SICK…)

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Bee Says: Whilst we had some of our trip high points at Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, Peru wasn’t great to us for many reasons particularly Puno and the fact it will always be remembered as Poo-ru rather than Peru. When we weren’t frantically tag-teaming a toilet, we struggled to find much to write home about that cost less than a dollar. Tourism has hit Peru in a big way (its basically the new Thailand) and as such, prices reflect this. We had a nice day out in the sunshine in Huanchaco though, and we handed over a dollar for both of us to stroll around the creaky wooden pier. From here we stood for hours watching local lads fishing with bits of wire glued to a square of wood; which seemed to be working well for them judging from the splish-splashing buckets full of fish we saw.

 6. ECUADOR – PINK CATERPILLAR RIDE OF JOY (THE WINNER!!!!)

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Nick Says: We’d just taken a last minute decision to fly out to the Galapagos Islands, paid out a not-insubstantial amount of money to a tour agency (which we had no idea would be legit or not – but turned out to be amazing) for a 7 night cruise around the islands, and were now sitting eating a slice of pizza and drinking a beer while trying to get our heads round the fact we no longer had the money. Was it a good idea or not? Had we made a mistake? One beer led to another, and then we heard a rumbling along the road. Not much traffic goes past on the Galapagos, so we were pretty curious. But this curiosity turned to first disbelief, then incredible excitement once we saw the source of the rumbling –  a giant motorised pink caterpillar on massive wheels came zooming past. We looked at each other and nodded. We quickly grabbed our stuff and shouted, ‘let’s chase it!’ Which wasn’t the best plan as it was really quick. Finally we caught up with it as the next bunch of excited people (mainly children if I’m being honest) got on-board. We leapt on, ready to hand over any amount of money to ride the pink caterpillar (a phrase I never thought I’d write) and laughed with joy as the man asked for a dollar each for the privilege. We knew we had a winner before the ride even started, but the journey confirmed it. Putting peddle to the metal, we roared off on a whistle stop tour of Puerto Ayora. No stopping for you pedestrian! Out of my way giant tortoise! We rode on for what seemed to be miles, careering around corners like a bat out of hell. But then came the surprise ending. Pulling up at what we thought to be the finish, the driver then proceeded to doughnut the pink caterpillar in high-speed circles. We whooped at him to keep going. He obliged. What a dollar. A few days later as our cruise stopped by Puerto Ayora we talked most of our fellow passengers to hop and ride with us again. They loved it.

7. COLOMBIA – SECRET JUNGLE PAN AU CHOCOLAT

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234adc4c6a9c11e3838a1219189c01ee_8Bee Says: From our Galapagos adventuring where we spotted giant tortoises, swam with sharks and scampered about with blue footed boobys  (and pink caterpillars..!) next we hiked into the wilds of Colombia, spending some time camping in Tayrona National Park before celebrating Christmas in  40 degree hot hot hot Cartagena. Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these unexpected delights, so to find them we had to follow the eau de chocolat with our nose; cartoon style. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these was my number 1 happy place!

8. PANAMA – SOAP AT LAST

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Bee Says: By the time we hit Peru, our supplies of British shower gel had well and truly run out. We weren’t worried; after all we had managed to stock up on sun cream, shampoo and pretty much every other essential we needed whilst on the road. However, shower gel and soap were another matter entirely. For three long countries trekking, we just could not find anything! The odd shower gel we stumbled over would be imported from USA and cost about $20 a pop, so we had to sadly return it to the shelf and carry on our stinky sticky way. Panama was almost a dollar challenge bust; firstly because after our real-life-horror-story crossing the Darian gap, and Nick’s nasty back injury, we spent the majority of our time in a hotel room where nothing cost less than a dollar! Then one night I snuck out to purchase a few make-your-own-mini-bar snacks from a shop over the road and on the shelves were… SOAP! A real life bar of soap! And better yet, it cost $1. This beaut gave us a great deal of joy and lasted us all the way to Mexico, even if by then it was a scraggly slither of joy rather than in its original glorious form.

 9. COSTA RICA – SWEATY BORDER CROSSING COCONUTS

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Bee Says: Costa Rica heralded sloths, snakes, night hikes, the best Mexican food we would ever eat and… the WORST border crossing of the entire trip. We went through the main Panama/Costa Rica border crossing, at Paso Canoas. First we were herded into a little room where our names were ticked off and sniffer dogs smelt our bags (and cheekily pulled out some of my underwear!) before being herded back out again and into a massively long queue for an exit stamp. After a breezy hour or so, we were finally let out of Panama and allowed to queue up for Costa Rica entry/searches/waiting around for no real reason. That wait went on… and on… and on… and in total the border crossing took over 4 excruciating hours of standing around. As Nick said in our original post about Costa Rica: For those of you thinking backpacking is all beers on the beach, try standing around a sweaty border crossing for a few hours while men with guns ask you questions! When we had finally been allowed to enter Costa Rica officially, we were both feeling weary, wiped and woeful. And just then, a man approached us selling coconuts… 2 for a dollar! Suddenly travel life was on the up again.

10. NICARAGUA – BASEBALL ON BIG CORN

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Nick Says: Ah Nicaragua. Probably our favourite country on the entire trip. Whether it’s a visit to the gorgeous colonial city of Granada, going to the world’s weirdest museum in Leon, riding on a boat with pigs and meeting the incredible Ike on Big Corn, and of course getting engaged on the tropical island paradise Little Corn, this was a country full of adventures and stories. It was also fertile ground for the dollar challenge. Beer was a buck, lobster not much more, bus rides and museums were a dollar, but the winner had to be the baseball game we went to on Big Corn. One tiny island, four competitive teams all battling it out for the championship. Saturday night was baseball night. The standard is high – one Big Corn local had made it to the Major League in recent years. The atmosphere was amazing, all beers and reggae music blasting out. We paid our dollar equivalent entry and walked in. We saw 5 balls before the tropical storm that had plagued us for days strike one last time, and rain off the whole thing. Days later, once we were back from Little Corn and catching up with Ike once again, he told us about the rearranged game the night before – and that he had tried to get hold of us over on Little Corn in order to ship us back, put us up for free at his, and take us to the game as he knew how much we wanted to see it! What a guy. But luck was on our side, as the last game of the championship had been brought forward. I could go. Sadly for Bee she was laid low with illness (/engagement boozing hangover), so I dashed across the airfield, got into the stadium, grabbed some fried chicken and watched a classic. My team (North End) may have been beaten in the last innings, but the game had it all. The crowd had even more. Sign me up to next year’s games.

11. EL SALVADOR – DESPERATE TIMES MCDONALDS

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Bee Says: There’s not much to say about El Salvador as sadly we were so squeezed for time that we only passed through San Salvador and the only money we spent was on… McDs! We tried to avoid the golden arches on the majority of our trip, but on this occasion we’d been in a bus since 3am for over 10 hours with no food, and being forced to watch a really weird almost-porno movie in a tiny sticky mini bus going over pot holes… we just could not bring ourselves to travel far to scavenge for food. McDonalds winked at us as we pulled into San Salvador and we were powerless to resist. Luckily it made for a handy (predictable) dollar challenge winner, as it turns out they have the pound-saver menu everywhere and our cheeseburgers were $1. Fun fact; in McDonalds in Latin America they put jalapenos in the burgers instead of pickles.

12. HONDURAS – MARKET PLACE EARRINGS

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Nick Says: My solo trip to Honduras was pretty eventful. When not scampering about Mayan ruins, or drinking delicious German beer in a micro-brewery, I was trying to dodge fiery protests  and bribery requests at the border. In between all that though, I was able to take time to do a little bit of shopping in Copan Ruinas. A beautiful, if somewhat heavily patrolled by soldiers, town the market offered loads of goods for great prices. I managed to pick up these earrings with a dollar after buying a few other pieces from the friendly market stall trader, and got to treat Bee with them on my return. I think she liked them!

13. GUATEMALA – ONLY A BLOOMIN’ ENGAGEMENT RING!

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Bee Says: After rocking my finest biro-bling for the journey to Guatemala, we thought it was time to upgrade to something a lil snazzier (but still unlikely to make me a target of crime). I found this beautiful hand-carved two tone wooden ring in a trinket treasure trove in Flores, and yep – it was $1 exactly. Obviously the real deal once we got back cost a wee bit more but if it hadn’t been for the fact that by the time we returned to England this wooden number was pretty much rotting off my finger and smelling pretty funky… I might not have been so hasty to upgrade to diamond and sapphires!

14. BELIZE – THE ORIGINAL CINNABON

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Nick Says: Caye Caulker was one of the most photogenic parts of the trip. A Caribbean getaway, we kicked back here for a week before heading onto Mexico and the end of our time in Latin America. The big thing in Belize was the food. We’d been a whole heap of different things ‘you just gotta try’, and they certainly lived up to the hype. Eating in restaurants may have been a bit pricey on the island, but street eats were plentiful and bargainous. We had cakes a-go-go from a big friendly chef guy, fried fish, breakfast burrittos to die for, and ice cold Belikin beer to wash it down. But the number one food we were told to try by everyone was cinnamon rolls from one specific bakery on the back-streets. Open only for a few hours twice a day, the cinnamon rolls would normally be sold out in about 30mins. So we turned up a dutiful 15 mins early, camped out by the door, and rushed through a soon as the sign was turned round to ‘open’. Did we want frosting on them? the baker asked. We sure did. I can still taste them now, simply some of the finest cinnamon rolls I’ve ever eaten, and two of the for a dollar!

15. MEXICO – CHEESY CHURROS IS WRONG

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Nick Says: I can’t say we really saw a whole lot of Mexico, but we did see a mariachi band playing in a food court and drink tequila with Mexican businessmen in a hotel lobby. We also went to the mall a lot, and were tempted daily by churros – delicious deep fried doughnut treats loaded with chocolate, caramel, or cheese. Wait, what? Yep, who doesn’t want hot liquid cheese on the sugary snack? It looked wrong, and potentially illegal. And at $2 sadly out of the budget for the dollar challenge, so the cheesy tempter remained uneaten, and we satisfied ourselves with 2 regular churros for the same price – making them a dollar each.

The dollar really is the currency of the world, and it was amazing to see what  we could, and couldn’t, get with a buck. It added a fun game to the times when we had to tighten our budget, and I can’t thank Kerry enough for setting us up with the greenbacks. So, if you guys have found anything amazing for a dollar on your trips, please let us know!

 

There’s No Place Like Home

Nick Says: As we bid farewell to the charms of San Francisco, and jumped on the faithful Megabus back to L.A. we were doing more than just setting off for Southern California; we were beginning to set off for home, also known as the U.K. We only had a day left of the whole adventure, and we knew it. The 7 hour trip down whizzed by, and before we could get itchy feet we were back in Echo Park and ready to go out for cousin David’s birthday. One of the reasons I love Los Angeles so much was due to night’s like this one – everyone spends all day talking about the entertainment business, about what projects they’re working on, and all that. Then they all set off to a dive bar and sing karaoke without a care in the world. As we knocked back the beer and whisky, sang (badly) a whole bunch of tunes, and chatted to everybody, the weight of what we’d accomplished over the last 6+ months started to sink in. But what a night to finish on, partying with people from another city, in another country, in another world from what we were used to. And when one of their producer friends suggested that I should be an actor (he was drunk), I’m not ashamed to admit there was a part of me caught up in the L.A. magic and believed I really could live the dream out here…

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But sadly that is not to be. The next day dawned bright and sunny, and with it the knowledge that today was the day we flew back home. Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and the USA – we’d seen it all, crossed a LOT of borders, and made countless more friends. But now as we sat in David & Katie’s front yard and waited for our super-shuttle airport pick-up service to arrive, we had to contemplate the fact that the next country we saw would be the one we grew up in.

We were the first to be picked up and our shuttle took us on a nice tour of down-town L.A.It felt like a farewell lap to be honest.But then far too soon we were at the airport, checked in, and sat having a coffee while the hours ticked down before lift-off. My memory is hazy of boarding the plane – simply too much was going through my brain to really appreciate what was about to happen. No more tropics, no more near deathly jungle/boat/animal encounters for a bit, no more trekking and sweating. It had been an incredible ride, but now it was time to go back to the world we had left behind.

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Bee Says: I funnily have the opposite to Nick’s brain-blank when it comes to the LAX wait for our great flight home. It feels like every weird, surreal detail is totally emblazoned onto my memory. We were probably waiting around for 2 hours maximum, but it felt like forever. I think the weight of what we had just achieved, the ups and downs, the culture shocks and the fact that we were two very different, grown people stepping foot on this flight compared to the ones who left London the year before. When writing this post, I couldn’t resist revisiting our first post (aw, bless) here; “Touch Down Venezuela!”  and I notice how I kind of gloss over my Gatwick melt-down. I have never, ever been more scared than when we stepped foot on our plane to Caracas and left everything I knew as normal-life behind. As you can hopefully tell from reading this blog, and the fact we got engaged on route rather than chucking one another off a boat or our of a tiny plane, Nick and I are very solid. Most of the time, we almost have a hive-mind and just want to do or say or eat or see the same exact things. This makes life dreamily easy. However, in the few weeks before we left for this trip; I think we were the most distanced ever. Nick could barely contain his excitement. He was chomping at the bit, so giddy and overjoyed to be off to see the world again. He had been backpacking before, and knew exactly how mind blowing and incredible the trip would be. I however, was paralytic with fear. I knew I wanted to see Latin America, and I knew I needed something to shake up my rat race rut. However, I couldn’t get excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about what might go wrong and all the things I would miss when I was thousands of miles away. In those few weeks we were on different pages of the same book, and neither of us could exactly empathise with where the other one was coming from. Stepping into the airport this time, we were back in the same brain frame; and we were devastated it was over.

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We were catching an Air Zealand flight, and actually hopping on half way. Most of the passengers had flown from Auckland the previous day and were just on stop-over to London. As we walked through customs, there was a chatty member of staff on the microphone repeating over and over what could and couldn’t be taken through security. As I passed, he said loudly into the microphone “now you look the type to have some tequila stashed in that bag” (! he knows me so well). My unsavoury vibe struck again moments later, when after the creepy full body scan, I was pulled aside to have my fingers swabbed. Who knows what for? But in my head I was just thinking how typical it would be if I successfully survived the Darian Gap, only to get arrested on the last hurdle home! Luckily I was innocent of whatever the swabbing was about and we could proceed to duty-free where Nick kindly let me buy Nylon magazine for the journey. Another niggle on our exhausted airport brains, was that for the past 7 months our whole lives had been pretty focused, every day there was a plan; catch this bus, cross that border, book this hostel, visit that historical monument… or even just “drink a pina colada and send a postcard”. Suddenly the very real fact that our future once we landed in Heathrow was a giant question mark, had us both a little rattled. That’s the only reason I can think to explain why we decided to spend the last of our precious travel budget on a GIANT (even in US portion size, GIANT) Domino’s pizza about five minutes before we boarded the flight. Neither of us even like Domino’s pizza and yet here we were, eating enough to feed a small family, whilst also knowing that we were about to get fed on-board the plane. I think it took the entire 11 hour flight to digest my meal.

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The flight was a-ok. Frankly nothing will ever be as scary as our teeny tiny tin can in Panama, or our electrical storm LA landing. We had both been excited to watch Frozen, as every movie we had seen in the cinema be that Peru, Ecuador, Colombia or Mexico had shown the trailer for it… in Spanish (muy frio, muy frio!) but we knew it was getting a ton of internet hype and love, so before we had even hit cruising altitude we had our earphones in and had done that fiddly lets-try-start-the-inflight-entertainment-at-the-exact-same-moment-thing which obviously failed so Nick was chuckling about 5 seconds before me every time! I loved the movie, but think the post-travel blues were nestling in as I cried more times than is healthy for a Disney movie. Luckily, we had paid a little extra for two seats alone, so only Nick had to put up with a damp shoulder. As we watched Frozen, we skirted over the snow-capped Rockies, which felt extra dramatic whilst watching a snowy movie on the other side of the window pane.

About half way through the flight, Nick got really sick. I think it might have been a combination of going-home freak out feelings, our crazy pizza purchase and some shifty looking air food. This wasn’t the emotional end to the journey we had wanted, as poor Nick kept rushing to the toilet and back. Eventually he settled down on my lap and I covered him in every blanket I could pinch from the seats around us. I ploughed through the Carrie Diaries, stubbornly not sleeping a wink, until suddenly… what was that! Oh yes, it was the rolling hills of Ireland!

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I woke Nick up and we both had a bit of a teary eye as we saw the terrain and familiar sights that we had missed so badly. We got an extra good London view as the weather was gorgeous, so the Thames and the Palace and the Eye all greeted us a welcome home. As we bumped onto the tarmac, I felt so proud of everything we had done. I am so privileged to have seen some of the most remote and beautiful parts of the world, and to have done it with my best friend by my side. Thank you to everyone who shared the journey with us. We had to spend a lot of hours in many a sketchy cyber cafe in order to keep this blog, but every thoughtful and encouraging comment made it all worthwhile.

NickSays: I can only copy Bee’s sentiments- thanks to all of you who have read this blog, whether from the start because we made you, those who stumbled across it online, and those who have asked us questions in the comments. It’s been a pleasure writing for you.

My parents were there to greet us at Heathrow. As we emerged blinking into arrivals, their smiles must have lit up the place. It seemed paradoxically like no time and all the time in the world since they had tearfully sent us on our way to Venezuela. Now we were back, and driving along familiar British motorways. It all felt comfortingly familiar, but like a dream I couldn’t quite remember. We had no idea how we could fit back into life as we knew it, but also looked forward to having a routine, stability, and no more guns pointed us as a hilarious joke. We also knew that we would be going away again one day. There’s just too much out there. It’s not just a part of our lives, it’s a way we want to live our lives.

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Which means that this isn’t the end of TwentySomethingBurnouts (despite Bee turning, ahem, 30). We’ve got a ton of new content to put up. Whether it’s the results of our dollar challenge (just what can you get in each country for a buck?), our travel tips for Latin America on a budget or time-scale, adventures in the UK, and some more jaunts abroad, we’ll still be keeping you updated and hopefully entertained. So thank-you readers for being with us, thank-you Latin America for being incredible, thank-you USA for welcoming us with open arms, and thank-you Bee for being the perfect travel buddy. Let’s do it again.

Bee Says: Aw shucks, thanks Nick for proposing to me and making the trip a dream come true! We are looking forward to writing all about our future adventures. If you want to read some more rambly day-to-day London lifey stuff, I also blog over here at Like a Skeleton Key where I have jotted quite a bit about what its like to adjust back to UK life.

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If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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