Tag Archives: Backpacking

Living in California

Nick Says: Hello! Sorry for the slight pause there on the blog – turns out getting married (woohoo!) and then moving your entire life to the other side of the world is fairly time consuming. But we have lots to talk about, so let’s get started…

While we may have travelled for months at a time over the years, neither me or Bee have ever lived permanently in another country. About the closest I’ve come was 6 months in Australia, where I rented a room in Melbourne for 2 of them. But setting a up a home somewhere else? Brand new territory. So how can I sum it up so far? Exhilarating, terrifying, overwhelming, incredible. The superlatives are endless. And the cliche true by the way, visiting somewhere and living there are very different things.

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At some point, we will do a ‘how to’ guide for those who move to the USA – we’ve had to work out lots of things that would have been handy to know, from getting a social security number, to leasing a car, and finding an apartment. But for now, let’s give you highlights of what we’ve been up to in since moving here.

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Moving to Los Angeles so soon after our wedding meant we had to put our Honeymoon plans on ice for a bit (yes, I realise California isn’t a terrible alternative…). But we still wanted to decompress and celebrate our new marriage a bit, so we took our first weekend here to drive 2 hours south down to Laguna Beach. It was truly magical, and the perfect introduction to our new life as Californians. A beachside resort down in the O.C. Laguna Beach feels very much like an outsiders view of California distilled. It’s got the beautiful beaches, the beautiful sunkissed people (some with more work than others), the laid-back arty vibe, with the local gallery showcasing paintings of a giant grasshopper riding a motorbike down the Pacific Coast Highway, and some of the most dramatic sunsets I’ve seen in a long time, and as anyone who travels knows, you see a lot of sunsets. So take my word for it, these are very special.

We decided to treat ourselves and stayed at the Casa Laguna Inn & Spa, which was set a little bit out of the main town. During summer months though, a free trolley bus operates up and down the PCH, with a stop just outside the hotel, which meant we could ride to where all the bars and restaurants were located incredibly easily. The trolley itself looks like something from the beginning of the automobile age, made of wood and with no windows. Enjoy that sea breeze!

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As well as sunning ourselves on golden beaches, eating incredible food such as crab stuffed jalapeños wrapped in bacon washed down with jalapeño margaritas from fancy Mexican restaurant Carmelita’s, or having dessert generously paid for by a couple who sat next to us at another fancy restaurant (as a welcome to the USA gift!), we also stopped for lunch at a super cute diner just down the road, which required us to possibly illegally trespass over a fence into what seemed to be a school, in order to reach it by foot. They do not make things easy for pedestrians over here.

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When not stuffing our faces (USA! USA!) we found time to enjoy the hotel. From our little balcony at the back of our room, we had a view of the Pacific Ocean. Mornings would find us sat here at the little table and chairs provided with a cup of coffee each just admiring the view and not quite believing any of this was real. Despite being on the highway, the hotel felt amazingly secluded and peaceful. Done up in Spanish colonial revival style, they brilliantly told us the historic part of the house was from the 1920s (our flat in London was from the early 19th Century I believe). Getting fully into the relaxed zen vibe, Bee had booked us onto a ‘togetherness’ massage – which meant we were massaged while lying next to each other. I think it was meant to be extremely romantic, but we were far too English to fully relax ha! Much better was the bit after where they turned on the hot tub, which is outside and also overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and gave us a bottle of champagne. So we downed the bubbles, and watched the sunset from our own private jacuzzi. One week in and we’d changed.

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Of course, it hasn’t all been swigging champers in hot tubs and enjoying the beach. We’ve also been exploring L.A. Which due to the fact it was about 40 degrees when we got here, actually did mean enjoying the beach. Making the most of our rental car, we spent the next weekend up in Malibu, an easy 45 minute drive north up the Pacific Coast Highway, with spectacular views of the ocean to keep you occupied while sat in the occasional traffic jam. While Zuma beach is probably my favourite, a wide expanse of golden sand which you can walk along for miles, and never feels crowded despite its popularity, a little treasure trove of a beach is definitely Paradise Cove. To avoid the $40 parking fee (yep…) I would recommend parking up the hill on the PCH itself, which is free. Then it’s a quick 5 minute walk down a hill to the beach itself. It’s set up like a mini resort, with a restaurant serving food, and a shop selling beer for you to drink while sunbathing. The sun loungers and chairs were all free to use (I double checked with one of the many helpful and friendly staff) which was a unexpected bonus, and it was pretty easy to while away an afternoon here. No sunset view to be had, but one of my fave beaches so far.

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But there’s fun to be had at nighttime too in L.A. Which is lucky, as at the moment it gets dark about 5pm so that’s a lot of hours to fill. One of our favourite discoveries so far is First Friday’s in Venice. Venice itself is infamous as the weirder side of L.A. Head down here if you want to see Muscle Beach, t-shirt hawkers, and a Sikh man in full turban rollerskating along the bike path playing an electric guitar with a mini amp strapped to his back. Basically, it’s the Camden Town of Los Angeles – but by the sea and sunny. Anyway, every first Friday of the month around 20 of the best food trucks in the city all gather together for a big event. It used to be 70, but then it got a little bit out of control, loads of people got drunk and caused mayhem, and they scaled it back down. Still, it’s pretty epic and has a fun festival feel. It also introduced us to the best food we’ve had since arriving here, Howlin’ Rays Nashville style hot chicken. Words will never describe the taste sensation it was. Also a fan of this food truck was a pretty famous face. Bee noticed a man in the queue looking pretty intently at us, having clocked our British accents. Then Bee whispered to me, “is that Chris Martin?’ You know what Bee, it was. Then seemingly to make sure we really knew it was him, the Coldplay frontman started singing and dancing in front of us. I genuinely am not making this up. We snapped a paparazzi shot of him, but as it’s got one of his kids in the background I won’t put it up. We then saw on Twitter that he’d gone into a local shop and offered everyone free chicken. Incredible scenes.

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It’s not all been eating (mainly it has). While we were staying in Miracle Mile for the first month (a pretty central area which seemed to be 25 minutes away from everywhere else in the city) I took myself off to the La Brea Tar Pits for the afternoon. If you ever visit then I definitely recommend a trip here – the park is free, but the museum is worth your $12 for sure. They have millions of fossils on display, perfectly preserved skeletons of mammoths, sabre tooth cats, and other giant creatures, plus real tar (asphalt actually) which bubbles up from the ground all over the park, so watch where you step. It’s a fascinating look into the natural history of a place we associate with modernity, entertainment, and urban sprawl.

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Bee Says: Thank you for bearing with us on our life hiatus! As Nick said, we might have ever so slightly underestimated that leaving one job/house/city, getting married and moving around the world to a new job/house/city/life/culture basically feels like stepping onto the waltzers. It feels like we are only just starting to know our heads from our toes again! And now that we have, we are really excited to share our little corner of the world with you again. There’s more to talk about than we can possibly expect you to read in one sitting without an intravenous of coffee, so I’ll pick a few highlights and then I promise we’ll be back soon(er) with new news. As Nick mentioned when we first moved here we were living in an Air BnB in Miracle Mile for a month. Whilst the location was great (and when I say great you can read “walking distance from an Umami Burger) we quickly learnt that living in an Air Bnb is far from ideal on a long term basis. The apartment was sweet, but absolutely fit to bursting with someone elses stuff! Which meant we couldn’t unpack, I was having to try and dress appropriately for a new job every day without the ability to even properly unpack my suitcase and generally we felt like intruders in someone elses home. It has made a HUGE difference to get our own place.

Whilst I was at work Nick had the daunting task of house hunting; pretty overwhelming when we were shiny new off the plane and unaware of good areas, good deals or what was what. We were under the time pressure of having to find somewhere before our Air BnB ran out and to reduce my commute. Everywhere we viewed was not quite right; the most not right being a flat that looked lovely online only to turn out to be somebody’s GARAGE they had converted?! As the realtor said “you need to pass through the family home to get in and out, but they are ever so nice” we started to get a little bit of the fear that we’d never find somewhere. Lady luck shone on us though, and one day Nick saw an advert on “hot pads” with no photos, no text and just a phone number. Luckily he persevered and rang the mystery number, making an appointment to view. We turned up to a beautiful block decorated in batenburg shades (in typical me style I decided I wanted to live there based on how cute that would look on Instagram) and found an open door to an apartment with no one inside. After a quick scout around, we couldn’t believe it when we realised the place was a two bedroom apartment yet on the market for a one bed price. A Guatemalan lady called Paulina soon found us lurking inside an we basically leapt on her and signed up there and them, forcing a deposit on her as more and more couples arrived to look round. Being the first over the stoop gave us first refusal and the rest is history! Amazingly (and unlike in the UK) in the week between signing and moving in, Paulina worked her socks off to get us new flooring, an A/C unit and a professional clean. We also both have a walk-in wardobe! Living the Cher from Clueless dream.

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Having a proper home has instantly got us feeling more settled. Another key to the LA puzzle is the fact it’s in an area we are completely besotted with. Culver City is actually its own independent city in the county of Los Angeles. It’s the original “Hollywood” where the film studios were first set up – such as MGM in the 1920s. Its motto is “The Heart Of Screenland” & The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, King Kong and ET were all filmed here. It’s so the “real Hollywood” that in 1937 the Culver City Chamber of Commerce petitioned to have the city name changed to Hollywood (as the sign had become so iconic) but it was declined. As a result, studios such as MGM started placing “Made in Culver City” front & centre of the credits before all their films!

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The area is safe, pedestrianised (RARE for LA!) and super buzzy. To get a sense of it… The Wonder Years filmed its outdoor scenes on our street! The area is super well maintained; fairy lights twinkle from the palm trees and there is a real community atmosphere. We are walking distance from my work, a Trader Joes, an In-n-Out burger, a coffee shop that makes a mean Mexican Mocha, gift shops, banks, about 40 restaurants, an Arclight cinema and a Cold Stone Creamery (lethal). We also have a diner, S & W Country Diner, that is everything you’d wish from a local hangout. Kitsch decor, booths, a menu as long as your arm and insanely friendly staff who remember you and your preferences! We go every weekend and it’s basically our new second home.

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What with all this eating, we are also fortunate enough to live next to Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook. This is a great hike that takes you up some gruelling vertical steps (where we regularly see the USC Trojans training!) to take in a 360 view of LA from the top. We tend to head up there at 6.30am to catch the sun rising, and I could honestly sit there for hours just watching the planes take off and land over at LAX… the sea lapping in the distance and the Gotham-like towers in Downtown. It’s always a wrench to head back down and into the day.

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An unexpected event is that we have both become big Clippers fans. Obviously there is an endless choice of sports to get into in America but basketball zoomed into our hearts the quickest. When we first moved here, Nick’s old housemate and our good friend Laura was spending her last month as an Angeleno before moving to NYC. This was perfectly timed for us to team up on a ton of our firsts/her lasts together. One of these was an introduction to the Clippers. From the moment we arrived at the Staples Centre, I knew I was about to become addicted. Firstly, basketball is easy to follow. There are no crazy rulebooks to digest and it’s obvious when someone is winning. Secondly, it’s so much more about the experience than the sport! We saw fireworks, we saw babies racing across the court to win their parents a jeep (!) we saw the National Anthem being sung, we saw “kiss cam” where the big screen display people who must then kiss on demand (I think they try to go for the people they have sussed are couples…) we saw randoms from the audience come up to try and score a slam dunk, we saw celebs lazing on the front row… the list is kind of endless. There is way more faffing about with entertainment than actual spot. That said, the sport is really nail biting. We witnessed the Clippers win 67-66 by scoring with 0.03 seconds to go… the crowd went CRAZY! It’s super good fun and the key – it’s cheap. You can get nose-bleeder seats (where the best atmosphere is I reckon!) for as little as $8 (about a fiver!) and we can ride the metro there and back, which costs about £2 return. No wonder we are averaging a game a fortnight! Those Clippers work hard too, they play about 5 games a week and are even playing on Christmas Day.

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Another great experience was heading to the Día de Muertos celebration at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. We had wanted to visit the cemetery for a while; it’s iconic for being the final resting place for more Hollywood founders and stars than anywhere else including Johnny Ramone and Toto the dog from Wizard of Oz. It’s a surprisingly tranquil and beautifully maintained place; it isn’t tacky at all which is what I was fearful of. There are various cultural events and celebrations throughout the year, but Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is one close to Nick and I’s heart after we celebrated it with locals on Isla Del Sol in Bolivia. Day of the Dead is a holiday celebrated throughout Mexico, in particular the Central and South regions, but also acknowledged through various other parts of South America and the world. The holiday is used to gather family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help “support their spiritual journey.”

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Ever since I learnt about the holiday I’ve been completely in awe of it. To me, it seems such an incredibly healthy and necessary way to talk about and deal with mortality. It’s actually how even the British used to deal with death (we learnt this at Highgate Cemetery tour) by creating mausoleums and huge shrines that were visited and decorated in a not dis-similar manner. However after World War 1, for obvious reasons, this changed dramatically to the more private, sheltered and intimate attitude to death we experience now. Having a day dedicated to talking about and remembering those we have lost is such a beautiful thing; and my favourite part is that this is a real celebration. There is amazing food, dancing, music and costumes. Everywhere has their own approaches (in Bolivia they fly kites) but the positivity is infectious. At Hollywood Forever we listened to an amazing Mariachi band playing The Smiths covers, we brushed off our Spanish to chat to some of the wonderful artists and people crafting, and we felt incredibly privileged to join in this special moment of the year, in such an amazing location.

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So that’s a little glimpse of Los Angeles life. We’ve been packing it in right? Don’t worry, we still have time to nest on our new sofa and binge watch Master of None and Jessica Jones. I’ll leave you with a classic Bee and Nick quote. Driving back into LA from a weekend away we were driving through a nice looking neighbourhood. Nick: “These are such lovely houses. What area is this? Why don’t we live here?” Bee *checks Google Maps* “This is Beverly Hills.”

 

Being in Beelin. Beerlin. I mean, Berlin.

Bee Says: Finally our European explorations are ramping up again, and they kicked off with me spending a busy Bee weekend in Berlin, Germany (or Beelin as Siri seems obsessed with auto-correcting it to!) My oldest friend from school is Sarah Mckay. We met in year five, and a quick Google tells me this would have made us a mere 9 years old. We had that instant you’re-my-best-friend-ok?-ok! connection and spent the next four years surgically attached and constantly sleeping over at each others houses and driving our parents mad with our experimental baking projects. Sad times came as in our teens we went to different high schools and were no longer able to be quite so much in each others pockets. Since then we have had a friendship that has ebbed and flowed through our teens and twenties as we both moved between different cities and countries and continents. Sarah has been in Berlin on-and-off for the past ten years, and full-time for the last four. I have been that annoying friend who says every January “I’ll DEFINITELY come and visit you this year” and then something else has come along and New Years Eve rolls around yet again without me doing it. So! This year, New Years Day knocked on the door and I responded by hopping onto sky-scanner. I picked a random weekend in March, which felt forever away at the time, and booked myself a long weekend to Berlin.

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I have been to Berlin once before and done the tourist trail. This time around my hope was to see a few of the treasures that are lesser known and get a glimpse into Sarah”s day to day local life there. The great thing about Berlin is that it’s only a 1.5 hours flight from London, making it practically commutable. I could leave work on Thursday at normal time and still be in Berlin for a beer before bed. Toll! Prima!

Nick Says: Bee kindly invited me along to her weekend in Berlin too. I declined as I’ve had slightly too much Berlin adventure in the last few years. I think it’s a great city, with such a unique vibe, and I love visiting, but I’m not sure if it loves me visiting it… On my first trip there, I spent an amazing few days soaking up the history of the place (and Berlin is a city that lives and breathes its history in a way like no other), caught a roller derby, got very drunk with the locals, and on the last day decided to tour round the place on a bicycle. It’s seems a city set up for cyclists, with wide cycle paths, and plenty of flat ground. So obviously I ended up becoming involved in a crash and broke my wrist. I then had to ice the break with beer, before sadly pedalling back to my hostel, and then the enxt day improvising my hoody as a sling while I flew home and headed straight to the hospital.

Round two in Berlin saw me arrive on a stag do. Surprisingly we managed to get a fair bit of culture in amongst the drinking. Tempting fate hugely, not only did I get back on a bike, but rode around on something called a beer bike which had its own bar attached. Ha, take that broken wrist of the past! This time however, fate had something else in mind for me. No sooner had we got off the beer bike (which is a huge, unwieldy contraption with a top speed slower than walking) and left it at its base then we were stopped by a couple of policemen. No problem I thought, they probably just want to do a quick search of us as we’re a large group of foreign men. But then another cop car showed up. The another. Then one more. Oh, then some unmarked cars with undercover police in. There was two policemen for every one of us. In between our poor German, and their not great English, we worked out they were trying to arrest us. At this point I swore never to return to Berlin, if I ever got to leave that was. But luckily a staff member from the beer bikes saw our plight and ran over. After a rapid fire exchange, she told us that the police had received a report of a group of guys trying to break in and steal a beer bike. Considering the aforementioned speed and size, this seemed a ridiculous idea. Doubly so for our group, as at the time we had the stag dressed up as a yellow jacketed Freddie Mercury… Hardly the most inconspicuous of robbery attire.

So as much as I love Berlin, and all it has to offer, I wasn’t too sad to be given this trip a miss and staying at home for the weekend, eating giant toblerones.

Bee Says: On Friday morning Sarah’s alarm went off at 6.30am (she’s a teacher) and I dozed on until something slightly more civilised for a holiday day. It felt truly surreal to actually remember I was in Germany; having arrived after a normal London rat-racing day and only speaking English since landing. Sarah lives on the outskirts of Kreuzberg which put me in the perfect location for strolling and sight-seeing. The Friday in question was the big day of the solar eclipse and so before I’d even had a coffee I was enjoying peeking at the pockets of people gathered on street corners with all sorts of DIY contraptions to view the sun safely.

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I holed myself up at Cafe Katulki (Friedelstraße 41,12047) to have a leisurely breakfast and finally rummage through my guide books to plan an itinerary to keep me out of trouble until Sarah was freed from the classroom. My stack of guidebooks, including the gorgeous Lomography guide, had been generously donated by my friend Amii and she helpfully annotated them with must-see and must-eats. She is a girl after my own heart (belly?) with eats outweighing sees about 4 to 1!

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Cafe Katulki has buckets a chintzy chic; and is an instagrammers heaven! From the insanely heaving cake counter, to the mismatching liberty china sets, to the tiled walls and rocking chair reading nooks; if I was a local I think I’d be in here more than my own house. Another great discovery was that the cafe has an Eastern European owner so was serving Schokolade; that hot chocolate so thick you can barely stir it. Once the sugar high kicked in, I started my stroll to destination number one – Hasenheide Park. The park is a 50 hectare green space with many treasures to discover. I hit jackpot with a clear blue skied sunny day, so could really appreciate ambling around every section stumbling across rose gardens, an open air theatre, a petting zoo, a doggy playground, a pair of grumpy camels (!) and a few sketchy drug dealers sadly; but they seemed happy enough to keep to themselves and let me walk along despite accidentally intruding on some sort of business moment. In addition to the enclosed animals; the park boasted oodles of lovely natural wildlife, even in winter. As I sat reading in a patch of long grass, a woodpecker was hammering away above my head. I also saw my FIRST EVER red squirrel! Despite many hours stealth stalking them on Brownsea Island I have never successfully spotted one of these incredibly creatures. It was a real unexpected delight, especially when I got a look at this fella’s huge ears.

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I exited the park from a lake filled with rowdy geese and duck, and was treated to the Friday call to prayer at a huge ornate mosque that dominates Columbiadamm. Being originally from Bradford this is a familiar sound and it felt special to hear it at that exact moment; as I strolled around with a brain buzzing with childhood nostalgia.

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From the park is was just a trot over the road to my most highly anticipated spot of the weekend; Temple Hof. I have a real lust for abandoned buildings and places but now that I’ve grown out of my teenage phase of shamelessly sneaking into old mills and crumbly places; I satisfy this desire through the fact that most of the people I follow on Instagram are urban explorers.

Berlin Tempelhof Airport was one of the original airports in Berlin. Situated in the south at Tempelhof-Schöneberg, after a chequered and varied history of operation, it finally closed its doors in 2008 as part of the Berlin Brandenburg Airport project (which is a whole other story if you don’t know about it. A hot topic that I heard discussed by a lot of Berliners over the weekend!) Tempelhof’s original terminal was constructed in 1927 and the main building was once among the top 20 largest buildings on earth; in contrast (wikipedia reliably informs me) it formerly had the world’s smallest duty-free shop! Having previously been one of the busiest airports in the world; during WW2 it was used by the Nazi government to assemble military aircraft. Nowadays the vast expanse of Temple Hof is home to a huge investment turning it into a “modern park” and that was evident through the various eco-gardens, nature reserves and kite-boarding tracks I saw.

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However, I was more interested in the fact that so much has been left behind. I am relieved that amongst the re-development; there are still plenty of historical relics. From old bombers, to an American shooting range, to the runway signage and the runways themselves; there is still such a sense of history and identity here that is fascinating. The space itself also had an incredibly special atmosphere. There was a sense of peace, quiet and zen that felt at-odds with the fact the park is just moments from the bustling city centre and surrounded by main roads. Once perched in the centre with my book; I could hear only the insects and the whistling wind. I stayed there for hours sitting between the slats of an abandoned railway line and having one of those perfect travel moments!

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One thing that I was crushed about, is that because I visited on a total whim, I didn’t do proper research and discover that you can actually tour the buildings themselves. So instead I spent the day with my nose smushed up against the mesh fencing thinking how amazing it would be to peer inside; little knowing I could have done exactly that and it’s the bit that would interest me the most. When I visit again (I’ve decided to try and make it an annual thing whilst Sarah is there) I’ll be snapping up a tour ticket and remedying my rookie mistake. Here is where you can do the same!

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I walked back to Sarah’s neighbourhood; ducking into Katies Blue Cat bakery (Friedelstraße 31, 12047) for a couple of the tastiest cookies I have ever devoured. I then sat by a stretch of the canal watching garishly coloured dotty beetles being busy, and hot air balloons flying over head. Yup; Berlin is a little bit like a Disney cartoon!

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Sarah was relieved to find me in one piece after my grand day of solo exploration, so we celebrated by going to her favourite burger joint. Except, well, she had forgotten where it was! We knew it was called Hamburger Heaven (or maybe Happy Hamburger) and that it was about a five minute walk from her flat. We walked for about twenty-five minutes before admitting defeat and Sarah announced that in true Berlin style, it was so obscure and cool that it was probably a pop up that had now decided to pop up somewhere new. I’m actually quite relieved that we never found Hidden Hamburger because instead we headed to The Bird (Am Falkplatz 5, 10437 // Kottbusser Damm 95 10967) which had been Amii’s #1 hot spot recommendation and in Sarah’s opinion the “best burger in Berlin” but as she is a vegetarian I had to really test this claim for myself.

The Bird is a super-hip NY style diner with an impressive line-up of the usual good stuff; burgers, hot dogs and grilled animal bits. They were also playing a pretty guilty pleasuretastic line-up of the tracks that populated Sarah and I’s mixtapes of the 90s – Foo Fighters, Nirvana, Offspring, Greenday… Limp Bizkit! So that was a fitting blast from the past. I made poor, patient Sarah translate every type of burger and topping available in great detail, as I struggled to make a choice, but we realised the entire menu was written in English on the back! In the end I opted for “The Woiks” which came with, well, everything. It was possibly the finest burger of my entire life; rivalled only by the holy Umami.

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I’m not a huge beer drinker (Nick has enough enthusiasm for both of us) but considering I had spent the past three months relentlessly hounding Sarah with the “two beers clinking” emoji on WhatsApp I thought it would be rude not to partake in one tankard. Which turned into two.. and three… because the beer in Berlin is SO tasty. I think Sarah said it’s something to do with wheat but I will hand over to Nick for the specifics.

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Nick Says: Well wheat does play a fair part, if you’re drinking Hefeweizen, but mainly it’s to do with the Reinheitsgebot, or the German Beer Purity Law. While relaxed in the early 90s, this meant that hundreds of years the only ingredients allowed were barley, water, and hops. Producing a lovely, clean beer you can drink lots of!

Bee Says: Rather than going out on the town on Friday night, we thought we’d have a sensible early night and save our energy for Saturday. But, after getting in bed we just chatted and chatted and fell into childhood habits of saying “good night” and then instantly one of us starting to natter away again. It must have been after 3am when we went to sleep! On Saturday morning we picked up immediately where we left off and by 11am were still in bed having an indepth conversation about the holocaust. I guess this is one of the perils of Berlin. We eventually dragged our weary bones to brunch and selected an innocent enough looking cafe called Citron. Once we had sat down and were pursuing the menu,Sarah gripped my arm and whispered that she had just remembered that the last time she had been into the cafe, about a year before, the waiter had asked her out on a date (she declined). I got a bit feminist rage-y about how presumptuous and rude that is; especially when you’re minding your own business and having a bite to eat – but Sarah defended him saying she had been sat revising in there all day and they’d chatted a bit. Anyway! I could tell by the look on Sarah’s face when our waiter came over that it was the exact same guy!! He didn’t seem to remember Sarah (or was styling it out) as we ordered eggs, coffee, juice etc,

The food was great, but when the waiter came to clear up, he leaned in and said something to Sarah in German. I thought he was asking if we wanted desert, but once he had walked off she informed me he had asked her out on a date AGAIN! This guy? He must just do it to all the pretty ladies! She had said no (again) and this time was a little more annoyed about the whole thing. I guess statistically it must work on someone occasionally; but unless you want a side of sleaze with your scrambles I would avoid this place.

I had been keen to visit the Topography of Terror but poor Sarah was having a bit of a gloomy personal life patch and thought that visiting the headquarters of the Secret State Police, the SS and the Reich Security Main Office and witnessing what occurred there; might not help her mood. We compromised on the WEST:BERLIN exhibition that was taking place at Ephraim-Palais
(Poststraße 16 10178 Berlin) I had previously known very little about West Berlin post WW2 and this exhibition used photography, video, artefacts, propaganda material and art to tell the story of this “island city” before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For a reasonably small collection there was enough to peruse and ponder for a good few hours; which was a good job because the day was drizzly and dismal.

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On the way home we went to hunt out the Berlin bear! There really is one. There has been a bear kept in central Berlin since the 1700s and the original cage was about the same size as two bears in total. Nowadays the official Berlin mascot has a more palatial pit and palace to roam around; but unfortunately we forgot that very important thing about bears… they hibernate through winter! Nothing to see here!

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On Saturday night we were treated to a Spanish tapas feast by one of Sarah’s friends Lia. I could lie and say we went to loads of hip cocktail bars and an “open air” (the done thing apparently!) but it was just a very VIP little house party; with an impressive schnapps collection to keep us merry into the small morning hours.

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On Sunday we took an hour long stroll through Kreuzberg and across the river, stopping for Sarah to indulge me with a go in the Photoautomat and to buy a Nutella ice cream for breakfast – such a British thing to do when it was -1 degrees but sunny!

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It’s so good to have a local with you when you’re the type of person who asks 100 questions. I had noticed these small cobble sized plaques on the ground, which Sarah quickly identified as Stolperstein or Stumble Blocks. They are a monument created by Gunter Demnig which commemorates victims of the Holocaust across Europe. Each Stumble Block commemorates an individual – both those who died and survivors – who were consigned by the Nazis to prisons, concentration camps, and extermination camps, as well as those who responded to persecution by emigrating or committing suicide. In Berlin the Stumble Blocks are placed on the pavement at every address where the individual lived. It was gob smacking once I knew what they were; to see how frequently they appeared beneath my feet. I think it’s such a subtle but important reminder to everyone in Berlin – visiting and living – of the scale of the atrocity and the fact the victims must be honoured and remembered on a daily basis.

After a lazy lunch at yet another of Sarah’s insanely talented-in-the-kitchen friends, it was time for me to feel the Sunday night blues creep in and start my long journey back to my flat in Chalk Farm. One thing I noticed from being fortunate enough to go to three different Berliner’s homes is that they have a really cute tradition where all guests are handed slipper socks on arrival! So you can take off your shoes and be instantly toasty and comfy. Imagine buying a stock of slipper socks purely for guests?! I think I need to transition this to the UK.

Thanks Sarah for an enchanting look in Berlin and life there. I already cannot wait to come back to this unique, achingly cool and layered city. I feel like yet again I have only scratched the surface!

Nick Says: While I may have stayed at home this time, I have been up to fair bit in the UK recently. Coming up soon is my tale of taking on a microadventure in Essex which then took a surreal turn when I accidentally stumbled into the filming of a very popular TV show set in that county…

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Welcome to the LIGHT Side: Packing for 6 months with a 35 Litre Backpack

Bee & Nick Say: This post is by far and away our most popular blog entry. We’ll leave it as we wrote it, but will constantly add some updates on what we found the most useful as the trip went on, fix broken links etc. Enjoy, and please add anything you can’t live without below!

Bee Says: Before we left, I meant to do a packing list blog, as I found reading other people’s so useful when preparing for six months away. However, I didn’t think mine would be that unusual until we got here and realised that every other person we have met has a bag double our size… and usually for less time! Then I posted a photograph of me loaded up with my 35 litre beaut and my friend Eleanor Jane asked if I could post some details about how on earth I have enough clothes for 6 months. I should also add that the clothes have taken me from 40 degree tropical heat to -5 freezing flats out on the Salar de Uyuni, which is surely proof that no one needs to struggle beneath a backpackzilla unecessarily. Here is my total kit, and bag on the top right.

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Clothes (layering is key!)
    • American Apparel Hoodie
    • Craghoppers Shirt – This comes into it’s own during Amazon and Jungle trips as it is made of durable breathable material that stops both sun burn and mozzie munching.
    • Karrimor Combat Trousers (that zip off into long shorts)
    • Denim Cut Offs
    • 3 x Cotton Tee Shirts
    • H&M TShirt Dress
    • Long sleeved Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Top
    • Uniqlo Heattech Thermal Leggings (that work as normal leggings with my dress)
    • Vest
    • 7 x Knickers
    • 2 x Bras
    • 2 x Bikinis
    • 3 x Hiking Socks
    • Woollen Hat & Mittens (bought in Bolivia)
    • Headscarf, Kirby Grips and Hairbands
    • Pashmina
    • Flip Flops
    • Small Festival Style Poncho
    • Montane Lite Speed Jacket – My biggest splurge and prized possession, this jacket squeezes down to the size of an APPLE. Its windproof, waterproof (tested in many stormy downpours) and is the perfect outer shell over my hoody and thermal in cold weather, keeping all the warmth in and the chill out. I got mine for 60quid on an outdoor retail website so shop around!
    • Sunglasses
    • Sun Hat – You can spend silly money on these in outdoor shops, so if you have a small head like me opt for a kids one. Mine cost 3quid as apposed to the almost identical adult ones for 25!
    • Karrimor Walking Boots (I wear these when travelling so they don’t strictly fit in my bag but can be tied to handles and dangle off Where’s Wally style)
    • 7 Litre Healthy Back Bag Day Pack – I use this day to day and leave my backpack in the hostel, but when travelling it folds down and fits in my big bag.
Keeping Clean
  • Beach Towel
  • Wash Bag with Aveda Miniature Shampoo, Conditioner, Shower Gel, Curl Cream and Moisurisor which when diluted down with water has lasted me neart two months so far.
  • Make Up Wipes (I BADLY wish I had bought about 5 packs of these, but I only packed 1. I used to use them every night back home to take off make off, but I am not wearing make up on this trip so instead I use them to – gross – clean off dust, dirt and travel grime. Because I have so few, using one has become a total luxury that I really look forward to… Sad! They also double up as a way of “showering” when there is not water at your hostel or you are on a boat etc.)
  • Tampons (no ones needs a photo of these but there is a box in there too, as you cant buy brands you may… prefer… over here, although there are sanitary products available so its your womanly preference with this stuff)
  • Deodrant
  • Mini hairbrush
  • Dry shampoo
  • Razor and 2 Blades
  • Toothbrush and Toothpaste
Essentials
  • Silk sleeping bag liner – This silk sleeping bag liner is a travel MUST have. You dont need to cart around a full sleeping bag, even the cheapest hostels in cold locations have piles of blankets and you can hire a sleeping bag if you camp on treks or tours. All you need is a silk sheet – it keeps you warm, it stops bed bugs and mozzies biting, it gives you something clean to sleep on when sheets look questionable and it is also a handy caccoon on cold night buses.
  • Travelproof Mosquito Net – We thought that hostels in Malaria regions would all provide mozzie nets… and we were SO wrong. I bought a double sized net and am so relieved I did, as it’s stopped me being bug food on many a night and especially whe sleeping on a boat or outdoor in a hammock. Don’t risk heading to South America without one.
  • Ear Plugs
  • Emergency Foil Blanket (present from Nicks dad, which hopefully by having means we will never need to use!)
  • Eaglecreek Silk Money Belt – Comfortable, safe and I basically wear it constantly, it has all my money, cards, passport, important info and memory cards in. The silk makes it non bulky underclothes and…  pretty sweat resistant for those big trek days.
  • Coin Purse
  • iPod Shuffle & Headphones (not the end of the world if you lose it!)
  • Plug Adaptor
  • Head Torch
  • Pen Knife
  • Blow Up Pillow
  • Document Holder – For Insurance Info, Yellow Fever Certificate, Innoculation Booklet, Itinerary etc.
  • Kindle – When I went backpacking to Canada, books took up half of my bag space. My paperwhite is the best thing, I never run out of entertainment and whenever there is Wifi I can download new reading material. I have a bashed up, old book looking case which helps security wise and hopefully itll last the duration of the trip!
  • Lonely Planet – Im carrying around Central America, Nick has South.
  • Digital Camera – About 5 years old and Im not too attatched to it but for the sake of snapping photos I hope it lasts the trip.
  • Chargers for all of these electric things.
  • Homemade Spanish Phrase Book
  • Diary
  • Playing Cards – Mine are special Taytos branded, a present from my Irish friend Chloe, and have already seen aLOT of heated hostel games of Shithead.
Medical
  • Overlanders Medical Kit – This honestly takes up a fifth of my backpack! But as we are visiting remote regions with no real medical care, we would be crazy not to bring a decent kit. Obviously the hope is that we don’t need it, but so far we have delved into it to stitch Nick up post window smashing on him and I ploughed through the rehydration sachets in week one. There is enough space for extra bits, so we also have it stuffed with plasters, travel sickness pills, anti diorrhea tablets etc.
  • A4 Ziplock of Tablets – Another big space chomper is the zip lock full of anti-malerias, which we have to take for the full 6months. I also have contraceptive pill, valerian root to help sleep AND spare asthma inhalers, so am basically a walking pharmacy, but the nice thing is that everytime I take a pill I know there is that tiny bit more extra room coming my way…
  • Flight Socks
  • 4 x Deep Heat Patches – Are you a girl? Do you have periods? Dont travel anywhere, or live your life generally, without these. The ultimate banisher of period pain.
  • Insect Repellent – Just pack one, you can buy DEET out here
  • Sun Cream – Same, you can buy all factors out here
  • After-Sun
  • Tiger Balm – The BEST miracle cure for bites, grazes and anything sore.
  • Germaline
  • Rescue Remedy
  • Anti Bac Hand Gel
  • Vasaline
  • Spanx – Not to help my figure, but these are amazing the day after a big hike or trek when you have sore back and legs. It takes all the pressure off and helps you limp around a little easier.

And that’s it! My life in a bag, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Nicks Says: Well Bee has basically covered everything in brilliant detail, so I won’t bore with going over too much of the same stuff. But the good news for the guys is that you can get away with even less stuff.

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As you can see from the photo above, I’ve also managed to cram in a lot of stuff into a small space. My bag is a 37L Lowe Alpine beauty, bought from the fine folks at the Outdoor Emporium in Camden who are super friendly and knowledgeable about pretty much everything outdoorsy and travel equipment related. For those who want the 35L but are concerned they may need a bit more space every now and again, a very similar Lowe Alpine bag is available and highly recommended.

I’ll try not to repeat anything that me & Bee have duplicates of, but I will give a quick run-down of important clothing items in my bag.

Clothing

  • 1 pair of combats. I actually bought these from Next after finding nothing suitable in the outdoor shops, and they’re great. They include a zip pocket which is invaluable for storing passport and wallet.
  • 1 pair of boardies. Great as your swimming gear, plus double as a pair of shorts.
  • A 3/4 length pair of shorts. I usually take a pair of shorts this length on my trips, but slightly regretted it on this one. They were too bulky for the small pack, and also didn’t add anything extra that a normal pair of combat shorts would have done, with less space. So don’t follow my lead here.
  • 4 T-Shirts. These include my beloved Melburn shirt my friend got me as a memento of my time spent living in the fine city of Melbourne. 1 tee has already been binned as a health hazard, and been replaced by a Peruvian supermecardo special.
  • 1 Hoodie. Don’t leave home without it.
  • 1 krama. This is my favourite ever piece of travel clothing. It’s a Cambodian scarf, and the best 25p I’ve ever spent. It doubles as a warming scarf, sun hat, dust mask, and bandana. You can also get big versions which you can wear as a manly skirt.
  • Wooly hat/beanie – I picked mine up for about £2/$3 in a Bolivian market, and can’t recommend getting one more – travelling isn’t all fun in the sun. Especially in South America you’ll be hitting altitude, and the hat will come in very handy!

I’ve also got just about enough underwear to keep it fresh and Bee happy, but every now and again I join the ULF (the underwear liberation front). When travelling to a new place, we make sure to wear all our bulky items and save on space. This is especially important for my trail shoes which can fit in my pack, but make it a bit of a squeeze… I chose the Benefaction II shoes from Berghaus, which were brilliant in every condition and stood up to some pretty tough punishment. Sadly they no longer seem to be on sale anywhere, so here’s a link to my new choice of shoes from new company Ridgemont Outfitters, combining rugged versatility with street style.

The most important and versatile item I took though was definitely my Montane Lite-Speed jacket. It kept me warm on top of the Andes in very cold and windy conditions, yet didn’t overheat me in the tropics, was waterproof enough to keep the rain off while running for shelter during a tropical storm, and best of all packed down to the size of an apple – meaning that I barely noticed it in my backpack, and could easily take it in my daypack. It’s so good that I now regularly wear it on all adventures, and in daily life!

Keeping Clean

I also made sure to pack a bottle of all-purpose soap, vital for when you have to wash clothes in the sink. I remember not really using much of it in 9 months when I travelled with just boys, but with Bee’s totalitarian cleaning regime , it’s almost all gone! (You mean it spilt in your bag!! – Bee) A loo roll is also VERY IMPORTANT, as they don’t like to supply you with much over here. Finally, one of my must pack items is a Swiss army knife. My current one was a present from my big brother Joe, and although I’ve not had to to take out any stitches with it (a former use of mine in Bangkok), it’s been super handy. Added to that I chucked in a few travel sized shower gels and shampoos, plus a beach towel. I found that those travel towels are generally a waste of money and feel horrible. A beach towel packs away almost as small, dries quickly, and looks better when you’re sunning yourself on golden sands.

If there’s one item I regret not bringing, it’s an E-Reader. Books take up loads of room, plus I’ve been stuck with old ones and no book exchange. Which meant I’ve read the guidebook cover to cover. I’m not even going to Argentina, but I can tell you all about it’s wine growing regions… Probably should have used the time to read the phrasebook instead.

Bee & Nick Say: There are obviously pros and cons to travelling light…

PROS
  1. Our bags are small enough to put in hand luggage on flights, and in the rack above us on coaches and buses. Some bags get tampered with or stolen from the hold, and since we spend half our life on buses, we were keen to never have them out of sight.
  2. They are light enough to trek with if we want to, like we did on Isla Del Sol. Most people we see are literally struggling to even get their huge backpacks on their backs, then cowering beheath the weight even walking to the bus. It does not look fun.
  3. Packing takes us about 5 minutes, usually less. Sleeping through the alarm doesn’t mean PANIC!
  4. You boil everything down to the basics. One of the main reasons to travel is to gain perspective on your life – and in this case a uncluttered bag means an uncluttered mind.
CONS
  1. This is no fashion show. We have to wear the SAME things day in, day out, and we start to refer to our “uniform”. I dont care most of the time, but there has been the odd occasion where I have felt really dowdy and underdresses such as the Manaus opera house where I was surrounded by women in beautiful gowns and I was wearing… Combats and walking boots.
  2. No room for luxuries! Dont even think about hair dryers, GHDs, make up etc. Packing light is definitely for happy scruff bags like me. I figure that I spend alot of time on my appearence in “normal life”, so 6 months off is allowed. When you are wearing a hat and sunglasses most of the time, it doesnt really matter what your hair and face look like underneath.
  3. You pong a bit… Laundry is an expensive treat, so day to day washing has to be done in the sink with soap. This obviously means after a week or so, everything is on varying levels of gross and slightly-less-gross. Fresh washed clothes is the BEST day when we do get a proper wash done!
  4. No space for presents! You cant really stock up on any gifts or souveniers bigger than fridge magnets. We did a big shop in La Paz for friends and family and then posted it home, which we felt is probably more secure than carting it all around for another 4 months… but there is a cost attached

Have we convinced you to travel a tad lighter? What size is your backpack?

 

 

Take Us Back To… Morocco!

Bee & Nick Say: Ah travelling. We have managed to pack in a fair amount since landing back in London from our Latin American adventure! There’s been Ghent, Paris and Sweden, as well as a few UK-breaks. However, 2015 is a slightly different kettle of fish because we have that quite major holiday to save up the pennies and ideas for; the one that starts with honey and ends in MOON! With that in mind; travel will be a little more limited until Autumn and so we thought we could share some of the adventures we had before our backpacking as part of a “Take Us Back To…” series.

In February 2013 we went on our first foreign holiday together and after lots of contenders; settled on the dreamy location of Morocco. Neither of us had visited North Africa, and we were also keen to go somewhere that we could get out in the wilds of and use it as almost a “test” before the big trip. This post was first blogged over on Bee’s lifestyle blog likeaskeletonkey but we have edited and added to it, so join us as we return to our sanctuary deep in the High Atlas.

Bee Says: Last Tuesday my alarm went off at 4am and I didn’t mind AT all! We bundled out of the house and a taxi whooshed us to Victoria to pick up a train to Gatwick. It had snowed overnight so all the parks were Narnia-like and frost glistened on the silent streets. Somehow the blue lips and cold fingers as we waited for the train made the fact that in a few hours we’d be landing in 30 degree African sun even more satisfying. The glorious Easyjet fly to Essaouira, Agadir and Marrakesh, and our flights cost £70 return each, so if you book in advance a Moroccan escape can be cheaper than holidaying in Europe. As we creaked up into the air the captain informed us that thanks to a stiff tail wind (heh) we’d be there in a brisk 3 hours as opposed to the scheduled 3 hours 45 minutes. A bumpy trip and beautiful sunrise later and we were descending over the Atlas Mountains.

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This was both Nick & I’s first time in North Africa. Rather than staying in one of the bustling cities, we had chosen to stay in the High Atlas. This is the edge of the Atlas Mountains, and about a 25 minute drive from Agadir. After a fair bit of research we had fallen head over heels in love with the Atlas Kasbah which is an Ecolodge situated in the middle of the hills in a small Berber community. The Kasbah ticked the boxes of everything we wanted from the holiday; to be immersed in a new culture, easy access to mountains, desert, beaches and souks and… a pool to lounge around next to on our lazy days.

Nick Says:One of the thrills of travel for me is to go somewhere that feels totally alien, where the sense of the unknown is overwhelming, a tiny bit scary, but utterly compelling. South-East Asia and South Korea previously ticked those boxes for me. I could now add Morocco to the list. I’d never travelled to a primarily Arab country before, and the cultural shift was immediate even upon landing. It felt different, and exciting, and… hot. Very hot actually. An incredible dry heat that you felt immediately upon exiting the plane. This might be a sweaty trip. We had arranged via the Atlas Kasbah to be get a taxi transfer to the hotel from the airport. If there’s ever this option, I would probably advise to do it. Take it from someone who has wandered through the choked streets of Chennai struggling to find somewehere to sleep after a long-haul flight to India and a crowded train trip into the city. Or on their first trip to Asia got thoroughly lost in a pounding rain storm in Kuala Lumpur after deciding ‘finding this hostel will be easy, who needs a map?’ Or… well, you get the picture. Anyway, as well as making getting to the hotel easy, arranging our transfer meant we met a valuable guide for our week in this part of the world, the amazing Saeed. He would prove invaluable, super-friendly, and a knowledgeable man in the days ahead. He started by chatting through the local area on our drive and teaching us a few basic words of Arabic and Berber. Outside the window, the landscape was a marvel. Reddy-brown hills dotted with bushes and scrub (which would later turn out to be the source of argan oil) and seemingly impossibly arid. It immediately conjured up images of nomads roaming the hills on camels, and hidden cities springing up from the desert. But before we knew it we rounded a corner and spotted what seemed to be a fort on a hill. We had arrived at the Atlas Kasbah.

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Bee Says: We couldn’t have been more impressed with the Kasbah, in fact on the feedback survey I marked everything 10/10! We were absolutely spoilt with the local cuisine, as in the Kasbah local chefs and cooks from the village create traditional dishes. Everything from the vegetables, to the herbs used in the tea, are grown at the ecolodge in gardens and over the week we ate the best food of our life! From heaps of fluffy couscous, to steaming tagine, to this amazing invention called pastilla (a sort of noodle pastry pie filled with chicken and sweet almond) and every meal was opened with piping hot just-baked flat bread. Even breakfast, which I expected to be a lame buffet effort (HOW wrong) was an epic feast. Every morning we’d wake with the sun rise and stroll out into the immaculate gardens. Sitting in the shade of the trees, we ate a barley soup to warm our stomachs which was a bit like a tepid savoury rice pudding but curiously addictive. We would then be brought pancakes, warm bread, cake and an omelette, along with natural yoghurt, freshly squeezed orange juice and 6 mini tagine pots filled with honey, pureed apple, dates, jam, butter and almond butter. Nick drank the spiced coffee but as I’m still caffeine-free (and was green with envy!) I opted for mint tea.

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Mint tea needs a whole paragraph of it’s own! Now lets just get this straight, the Moroccan mint tea isn’t like the ol’ packet peppermint stuff we have here. It’s the pillar of Arabic culture. We were lucky enough to get a lesson in making the mint tea by the Kasbah host M’bark. The tea is made with fresh mint (50 types of mint grow in Morocco), green tea and a serious amount of sugar. The tea takes 10 minutes to prepare as the water is boiled over hot coals, then poured in and out of metal teapots into small glass beakers over and over, to dilute the sugar and mix the ingredients. You can certainly taste the love that has gone into it. During our various trips we were invited to take tea with 3 different families, to whom we were complete strangers, and each time the process was done with such care (and always by the man of the house – it’s serious business remember!)

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In fact the main recommendation I would give for Morocco is how friendly and welcoming everyone is. I had read before going that in Arabic culture everyone they meet is viewed as a gift from Allah and destined to be there, and this attitude is absolutely clear by how warm and open everyone we met was. Especially given the massive language barrier! In Morocco, French and Arabic are the dominant languages, with Berber also spoken in Berber communities. We learnt that Berber people actually refer to themselves as Amazigh which means free people, as Berber was a name given by outsiders and is actually quite offensive (sort of equivalent to barbarian) although still commonly used. I speak no French and given that I’m now 8 weeks into re-learning Spanish, was desperately trying to avoid using French as I was worried the Spanish would all drop out of my brain! Nick, we soon realised, also could speak no French other than the very helpful “shut your mouth” and “I don’t give a damn” which wouldn’t exactly endear us to the local community. We soon decided it would be just as easy (and hopefully a bit more impressive) to learn key phrases in Arabic and Berber. So we made a big effort on our first day to practise and perfect how to say hello, please, thank you and no problem. It’s amazing how far these 4 phrases used alongside some sign language and big wavy arm movements can get you.

Nick Says: After a pretty lazy first day of mainly eating and drinking mint tea, we decided to spend the day hiking in the nearby foothills. Our guide was Ahmed, who lived in the local village. We assumed it would be a nice stroll about, especially considering how blisteringly hot it was. However,  Ahmed’s idea of a stroll was to walk 5 metres ahead at all times, with an almost jogging power pace, and then turn round with almost disapproving look that we couldn’t keep up with him! We later discovered that he cheekily told the Kasbah staff that he’d worked us hard because they are young! Added to the furious pace and heat was the fact that Bee was extra covered up on her arms and legs to respect the culture. This is a key thing in Muslim countries (and also in Italy when I visited some pretty religious towns) and worth bearing in mind, even if you’re male. However, it does not make hiking any easier… But it was truly awe-inspiring to be out in wilderness like this. London felt another world away. We walked miles and miles into the hills, barely seeing another living creature. What struck me about the terrain was how rocky and craggy everything was. Even beautiful flowers were covered with spiney stems and dusty leaves. The trees, despite being green, had thorny gnarled trunks. It felt like everything had to be extra tough and coarse to survive the lack of water and the desolate environment.

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Bee Says: Eventually we reached the peaks of the hills, where the nomads live. At night, we could see the nomads fires blazing in the distance and it was comforting and humbling to think of them out there, living such a simple lifestyle (especially when we had been patting ourselves on the back at going without iPhones for a week) We then hiked down to Ahmed’s villlage. En route he encouraged (ok politely forced) us to stroke a very poisonous-looking caterpillar and we both wondered if we might drop dead within minutes… but luckily we didn’t. Instead we made it to the village, and were fortunate enough to visit the Argan Oil Cooperative. As part of a push to create more jobs for women, cooperatives have been set up around Morocco where women gather to create Argan Oil (specific to the region and one of the biggest exported goods). We sat with the women for half an hour, using the stone tools to attempt to crack open Argan fruit and then crack open the nut inside, then free the small white seeds which are then crushed to make the precious oil. The women working away found it hilarious that Nick sat down and mucked in, and were howling with laughter the whole time! It felt really special to spend the time there, witnessing what daily life is like for the villagers.

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We were then invited to Ahmed’s for mint tea and a flatbread/honey feast. We met his wife and two young children and he proudly showed us his home, his chicken and the area he lived in. We started to realise that perhaps he had been walking so fast because he was excited to get us back to see his house! As we headed home in the late afternoon, the village mosque was calling to prayer. We spotted this glorious blue lizard and spent the evening star gazing.

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Nick Says: On Valentines Day we drove into Agadir. We were excited to see the local city, and take in a different kind of culture than the village life we’d adapted to. Agadir itself was a mixed experience. If you’re interested in this part of Morocco,I’d probably advise you just fly in and out of this city… Our first port of call was the Kasbah that overlooks the city, perched atop of a huge hill and visible from everywhere in Agadir. The view from there was breath-taking, and Bee had the added bonus of seeing her first ever camel, which she duly took a snap of, but was a bit frightened to pet. They are pretty bad-tempered though, so I don’t blame her. I once saw a wild camel charge a truck in Australia. Anyway, I digress. Back to the ruined Kasbah which majestically overlooks Agadir, and serves as a stark monument to the power of nature in this part of the world. The panoramic perspective clearly shows the shift caused by the disastrous earthquake that hit Agadir in 1960, killing half the population and completely destroying the old town. The Agadir we visited is apparently unrecognisable from its previous state, having been entirely rebuilt and so I guess you should bear in mind that it’s a city still recovering from a devastating natural disaster.

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Bee Says: We spent a lot of the day on the beach; which was clean and pleasant. The town however didn’t really have much to offer. Sadly (well not if you like that kind of thing) Agadir is dominated by resorts. Tourists flock for the cheap flights and guaranteed heat, but then stay in these Club-Med style resorts with huge walls and gated access. Actually I think I only need to say one thing to describe Agadir; there’s an English Pub. And for me, that’s exactly what I was trying to escape! We tried to make the most of the day by visiting the Valley of the Birds; a free nature attraction. However, as I excitedly scampered in and ran up to the first cage of blue parrots… I recoiled in horror. All the birds were balding. Some had almost no feathers. Some had actual bits of them missing, obviously having been gnawed off by their cage-mates. The ‘valley’ was an unfortunate one-way system so we were forced to carry on through what Nick coined the gauntlet of horror and we were very relieved to escape, if a little traumatised. One good thing about Agadir was that we could visit the huge Uniprix (supermarket). Morocco is a mainly dry country = no booze for sale in restaurants! So if you want a few drinks on an evening, you have to bring them yourself. Our Kasbah were very accommodating – and would happily put drinks in the fridge for us, open them to serve with dinner etc. They just don’t have the license (or inclination…) to serve it. The Uniprix is the only place in Agadir to legally sell alcohol, so we picked up a bottle of bubbles and also 4 bottles of the local Casablanca beer. I’m absolutely gutted we just had hand-luggage allowance as otherwise we would have bought a crate of this back! It was a beautiful beer, and a steal at just over £1 a bottle. The highlight of Agadir, and reason I would still recommend a visit, was twilight. As the sun sets, you can sit on one of the beach front bars drinking mint tea (obvs) watching the birds swarm around the port and then the motif on the Kasbah hill that says ‘God, Country, King’ lights up and sparkles in the distance. It was a really tranquil moment and a favourite memory of the trip.

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Nicks Says: Our big adventure day saw Saeed back once again to show off his country. He had actually given us a lift back from Agadir the night before, and so by now we felt pretty comfortable with him. After discussing where to go, and what to see and do, we decided in the end to drive the 2 hours down to Souss-Massa National Park. There were endless options of big day trips we could have done – Marrakesh, the oasis of Ait Baha, sampling fresh honey, the waterfalls of Imouzzer or the imperial city of Taroudant. We chose the national park because it was close to the city of Tiznit so we felt we could combine a half day of wilderness and then taking in a traditional souk. At Souss-Massa we were met by a local villager Ahmed (another Ahmed!) and his trusty and much loved binoculars. He took us on a 3 hour trek which trailed the river Massa to the beach, where the sands are the same as those in the mighty Sahara. Along the sea front lay a small fishing village. Although in the distance for the time being, Ahmed gestured that we would be walking towards it through the park. We knew before we visited that Souss Massa was home to the near-extinct Bald Ibis bird. Half of the worlds population (of which there are only 800) reside there and there’s a huge local push to preserve and protect this critically endangered species. We were desperate to see them, but didn’t hold out much hope. So imagine our surprise when Ahmed suddenly whooped for joy, and a V formation of bald ibis swooped over our heads! As we stood stunned on the sand, we saw about 3 different flocks of these incredible creatures and Bee even turned professional wildlife photographer and managed to get a brilliant shot that shows their amazing baldheads. The camel photoshoot had obviously primed her. This has to be the highlight of our trip, seeing one of the rarest birds in the world. Ahmed kept saying bon chance, bon chance as it’s so unexpected to see them. Apparently he hadn’t seen any since Christmas, which was a month and a half before. We also tracked wild foxes, found a wild boar skeleton, flocks of yellow billed herons in the trees and of course… sea gulls aplenty.

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Bee Says: As we crossed the sandy planes to the fisherman’s village, I made Ahmed laugh with a crocodile impression (the international language of signing coming in handy again) and in return he gave me his Berber headscarf which I wore for the rest of the day. On another baking hot day, it was sorely appreciated. As Ahmed took his headscarf off, a big curly mop of sun-bleached hair appeared, and we realised that he was a cool surf dude undernearth the traditional dress. He also had an amazing ironic teeshirt, considering he is a guide at a national park, he was wearing a Yellowstone national park tee! After a couple of hours hiking across the type of Sahara sand I have only seen in movies; we walked around a corner and what had previously just looked like a sheer cliff face shimmering in the heat suddenly revealed itself to actually be host to multiple cave houses. It was breath-taking. Just as we were blinking to believe what we were seeing; Ahmed proudly pushed us into one of the caves, which it turned out belonged to his brother, where we took… mint tea! His cave house was beautifully painted and so cosy, the way you could see the sea lapping in the distance from his bed. Any language barrier was easily overcome by Ahmed showing us photographs of a giant dead whale that washed up on the coastline last May (BIG FISHING VILLAGE NEWS!) with men stood around it looking the size of ants. Again I was struck by how little you need to be content, and how simple his life was looking out on the ocean. On the way home Ahmed encouraged us to climb up some stairs built into the sand cliff, which then turned into… just sand. The ground gave away (imagine how slippery vertical sand is!) as we scrambled our way up the cliff. Ahmed of course remained cool as a cucumber, whilst I imagined just how much damage landing on those spiny, sharp rockpools would do to my face… Yet another near-death scrape, but as he tugged me over the final cliff-lip, the views were almost worth it.

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Sandy and sun-kissed, we drove an hour to Tiznit. On the way we didn’t see another car, only ragged rugged plains as far as the eye could see, peppered with the occasional nomad’s tent. Tiznit was a delight, and I’d definitely recommend you visit. We were the only tourists and that always reassures me that you are seeing a city in its natural state rather than putting on a show for visitors. I haven’t been to Marrakesh to compare, but I imagine this is a less intense alternative. Tiznit is the capital of silver, and we got to see a local man creating silver that looked like delicate spun sugar. I bought an ebony bracelet with silver etchings, which has shot to the top of my most favourite and precious jewellery items and would definitely get saved in a fire! Tiznit is split in two, with an old terracotta town with huge towering walls and staircases that lead to nowhere. This was where the souk was, and it was a wonder to walk around – heaps of tagine pots, Moroccan slippers, jewels, oils galore, while Saeed kept encouraging me to eat random bits of what looked like twig that he plucked from the market stalls that were apparently good for women (he didnt say how, and they tasted like tree. I even got a tongue splinter.)

Nick Says: You could tell Saeed loved showing off Tiznit. He took us to his favourite Tagine place to eat lunch (it was good, but not as good as the Atlas Kasbah), and ducked and dived around the souk chatting to people and showing off various stalls. He even decided to buy Bee a present, a lovely scarf to help her in the heat. It was such a kind gesture from a tour guide, and was yet another example of the warmth and friendliness we found everywhere in this country.

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Bee Says: From Tiznit we drove out into the proper heights of the Atlas Mountains to the Ben Tachfine dam.  As we wound narrow roads I had no idea what to expect, and as we stepped out of the car I couldn’t catch my breath. No photo or words or describing will do justice to how beautiful the view was, and how silent and peaceful and just mind-blowing this moment was. I couldn’t have felt further from home. An 86 year old nomad lived at the top of the mountain and invited us for mint tea… and offered Nick to swap me for his donkey. It was quite a nice donkey.

Nick Says: Luckily for Bee though donkeys are my number one most hated animal (a childhood biting incident is to blame) so I was able to refuse the nomads offer. He was a properly grizzled old dude though, and was obviously loving life at the top of the dam. Driving around the mountains made me realise just how vast and empty Morocco is. It felt like we would go for hours without seeing a single sign of life, instead bumping along dusty roads and staring at the parched landscape. Then suddenly we would hit a wellspring of life and activity, or perhaps pass a few nomads in tents, before leaving the far behind in the distance.

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Bee Says: So, days merged into days, and a lot of dips in the pools, hours reading in the dusky sun, exploring the high Atlas and sleeping (we averaged around ten hours a night) and for our final trip we drove out to a surf town near Essaouira which is fondly referred to locally as banana beach. Weirdly enough Nick & I had never tried surfing before, despite me having holidayed at Fistral Beach in Newquay and Nick having er.. lived in Australia! I can’t remember at what point we agreed to try in Morocco, but we thought it would be nice to try something entirely new for the first time together. We went with Surf Town who we were reassured were experts with beginners, and they lived up to the claims. We paid £54 for half a day surfing and that included a very hands-on tutor, equipment and wet-suits. We joined a group of 5 friendly Russians and together embarked on our efforts to take on the sea.

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I couldn’t believe how MASSIVE the surf board was. I am a weakling, and could barely lift the thing let alone contemplate riding it! But actually once in the water (and attached to my foot) it was a little easier to control. We learnt the basics of surfing on the sand, and then hit the (huge) waves. I have to say, I absolutely loved it. Surfing requires intense concentration, a good sense of timing (to know when to paddle, when to attempt to stand etc) but once you get up on the board it’s the most satisfying, free feeling. Although every moment of exhilaration is matched with an hour of face-planting into crashing waves, sand and (for me) rocks. Woops. I definitely caught the surf bug though, and it helped to be doing it in a glorious exotic location with camels roaming the beach and herons swooping overhead. I managed to stand up once, whereas Nick was basically Beach-Boys level surf star within hours. What I didn’t expect was the world of pain that followed the next day. Every muscle in my body was screaming, so being squished into a full-capacity Easyjet flight for nearly 4 hours wasn’t the best treatment. We both agreed that it’s something we can’t wait to try again. I can’t see us getting his n hers boards and spending the days at the beach, but I reckon we’ll definitely go again this year. It’s quite nice to have started on one of the coastlines that world class surfers long to surf on!

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So that’s the end of our first ever trip to Morocco. You have probably gathered that it stole a piece of our hearts, and we’re desperately blue at being back in -5 degree London, which currently is snowing constantly at that level that makes me feel like I’m walking around in Silent Hill. Morocco has been my best ever holiday, and I would recommend everyone and anyone to visit. You can pick and choose absolutely anything you could wish for from a holiday, and be as adventurous or as lazy as you like. I also can’t recommend Atlas Kasbah enough. Every member of staff seemed so personally invested in us having a good time, and were patient, welcoming and endlessly friendly. Nothing was too much trouble, and they made our holiday so much more special because they were from the local area so were endless sources of knowledge and tips and information.

Nick Says: Morocco is a truly remarkable country, and we barely scratched the surface on what to do there. Exploring deep into the valleys of the mountains remains a must. Diving into the manic press of humanity in Marrakesh should be experienced. A night-trek on camel to the Sahara is on the list. As is a proper trip to Essaouira. But most of all I’m tempted to come back to the Atlas Kasbah and do it all again. Which is something I’ve never felt before – I love doing new things and seeing new places. So that must mean Morocco and the Atlas Kasbah did something truly special.

Bee and Nick Say: (Back in current day mode!) Despite all our further travels, there were only a handful places in Latin America that lived up to Morocco in our minds. Morocco is a truly magical place, which sounds like a cheesy term, but its accurate. It’s a land of souks, and silver, and special tea, and nomad fires burning in the distance. The alien-ness to anything anywhere else is palpable; from the warmth of the locals, the unique cuisine, and the language, smells, colours and nature. There’s also a vital lesson to learn from Morocco and its people; the most important thing in life is taking time to just sit down, share a tea and live alongside one another in peace for a moment… or a lot of moments. Nothing is better than that. On our last night we were treated to the most spectacular lightning storms we have ever seen, as if we hadn’t seen enough already, one last gift from one of the most picturesque parts of the world.

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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?!

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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Take a long drive with me on California 1

Nick Says: After returning to our LA home-from-home following our big weekend in Vegas, it was time to get ready for another grand adventure; a road-trip on the California 1 all the way up to San Francisco. I’d always wanted to do this classic road-trip, and it was floated from the start as a possible end point to the whole trip. Luckily for us, we managed to convince some others it was a good idea too. My friend David and his girlfriend Amii would be joining us from the UK for the drive, and another friend, Anish, lived in San Fran and was flying down to drive us up. After our LA experience of convertibles and beaches, I had dreams of us cruising the highway in a sporty soft-top, the wind blowing in our hair, and everyone envious of how cool we all were. This fantasy was quickly shattered as Anish pulled up in a mini-van, which would be the envy of any family wanting to know how to comfortably move their children and pets around. Still, it meant we had plenty of room (three rows of seats), cavernous head space and automatic electric doors. Looks and style be damned! It also allowed us the dubious honour of waving to any other Chrysler touring vans we saw en-route, although I think we were the only ones playing this game.

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If you were to take the boring interstate 5 which cuts through California, you could do the LA – San Fran trip in about 7 hours. If like us though, you have a few days to spare then I highly recommend the 1. Built as a Depression-era labour project, it winds its way up through the State hugging the Pacific coast. This leads to some absolutely incredible views and driving opportunities, although a bit more on that later. It also means you can pass through some really unique and charming towns along the way, and if you don’t quite fancy hours upon hours driving, then any one of them would provide a good stop off. After our consistently epic bus journeys in Latin America, our mind-set was now firmly stuck in the opinion that anything under 10 hours is a “short journey”. Therefore we had to chuckle when planning the trip via email, that the rest of our companions suggested that we’d need to stop twice for night stop-overs on the way, so as to avoid driving for over 4 hours at a time! On reflection though this was a fine idea, as it made the journey into more of an event and game us chance to explore bits of California we’d have never seen otherwise. With this in mind… we had selected the ocean-side town of Santa Barbara for stop number one, only 2 hours driving time from LA. Known predominantly as a university town, Santa Barbs (as we lovingly referred to it) was a gorgeous first stop. After an ill-advised 12 mile hike through LA the previous day, I think David and Amii were a little shell-shocked, so the ocean breeze, jangling of boats at the marina, and walking down the picturesque pier in the sunshine was probably just what they needed. They’d also somehow managed to book us into a swanky Hilton hotel (incredibly it worked out cheaper than the hostels in town), so we were able to stay in luxury during our night there. Free delicious cookies were provided (my favourite part of our stay in Panama) and while Anish had to slumber on a child’s camp bed, the rest of us had a damn comfortable stay. Considering some of the shacks we’d stayed in previously, this felt like we’d won the lottery.

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Santa Barbara is really easy to walk or cycle around, and as I mentioned, has an amazing pier dominating the beachside, so you can always find your bearings if you get turned around. Opposite the pier at the town end is what seems to be the main street, and it was here that we headed in search of a drink. One of the things we’d been struggling to get used to again in the States was the prevalence of technology. Considering some of the places we’d been had no electricity and the barest access to the outside world, we felt at times like we’d been frozen and woken up in a bright, shiny future. And here in Santa Barbara Anish would demonstrate just how different things were up here. We’d been discussing going to craft breweries on the road-trip (California being home to some of the finest in the world), and he’d obviously done some research. But now thanks to the power of Google Now, his phone could read his mind and pre-emptively suggest a micro-brewery here in Santa Barbara before we could even think of searching for one ourselves. It suggested an absolute corker too, taking us to the Santa Barbara Micro Brewery bar on State Street. For anyone in this part of the world, this is a must visit. Great atmosphere, friendly staff, great happy hour deal, and most importantly a huge range of tasty beer you can see being made in kegs metres from your seat. Although one of the guest beers is Stella Artois, which always amuses me. For those readers not from the UK, Stella has a terrible reputation as being the lager louts beer of choice over here. It is NOT a classy drink. Do not be fooled.

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Many, many drinks later, plus a tasty Thai meal a handy few doors down (Google Now did not anticipate inebriation and a desire for a curry, so failed to send us there. Damn you technology, you’ve betrayed me!), we then walked back through town to the hotel. Taking advantage of our fancy-pants hotel’s facilities we went to jump in the hot-tub, only to find a couple of yoofs in there. While me and David swam about in the pool pretending to be mermaids and secretly too intimidated to get in the tub with a couple of loud teenagers, Bee and Amii strolled over, got in and deployed the fact they were women in bikinis to first render the boys silent, and then quickly had them move on (for a cold shower I think). Yeah!

Bee Says: After a peaceful night (no snorers in our road trip gang) we were ready to get back on the road, this time our destination was Carmel, just north of the majestic Big Sur. I have actually done this road trip before, although it was in reverse, heading from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I blogged about it here and my one regret was that we hadn’t stopped to explore Big Sur. I’m an absolute sucker for pine trees, wooded hideouts and stomping around forests, which Big Sur can provide in spade-loads. After pitching in the prospect to everyone a few months earlier, we set about finding a log cabin for the night. Unfortunately it wasn’t a simple task, as due to the demand on Big Sur accommodation, most locations had a 2-night minimum and a steep price tag attached. In the end, we couldn’t justify the cost and Anish booked us into what he referred to as a “crack motel” in Monterey and thus the Big Sur dream was squished. Or so we thought. Whilst we have had a fair few scrapes and spots of bother on our 6 months of travels; we have also had plenty of unbelievable bits of good fortune. One of these was the fact that when we visited Katie’s family for the Oscar party and chatted to her parents about our trip up route 1, they announced they have a cabin out in Carmel which miraculously was free the day we planned to pass through! Despite never having met our three fellow road trippers, they were incredibly generous and offered us to spend the night there.

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Zooming out from Santa Barbs, we hooked up Amii’s ipod and were treated to her impeccable selection of Cali-themed tunes. It was definitely a cheesy/amazing moment to be driving along past the twinkling ocean and crooning loudly to “Califoooorniaaaa here we cooooooome” by Phantom Planet. Once our bellies started grumbling over the sound of our off-key singing, we pulled over at the very next town we saw, which happened to be Morro Bay. A quick drive around revealed a bleak looking location, mainly consisting of a sketchy gas station and a sole restaurant called “Taco Temple” which made Nick and I recoil in horror, as we had munched our way through enough bad Mexican for a lifetime on this trip. Luckily David consulted his trusty USA Lonely Planet which recommended Giovanni’s Fresh Fish Market and Galley. As we drove around the block to 1001 Front Street, it was like being in a completely different part of California. A harbour sat glistening in the sun, with ships bobbing up and down, and seals hooting from the rocks. Joining the queue for Giovanni’s, we ordered a fishy feast; clam chowder that was spooned out of a giant steaming cauldron, their house special garlic fries and deep fried bits of various sea dwellers. It was one of my favourite meals of the trip and found completely by chance.

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On my last drive down route 1, one of the highlights had been the zebras that graze on the roadside outside Hearst Castle in San Simeon, as part of Hearst’s exotic animal collection. After banging on about zebras and getting everyone to spend the best part of two hours craning their necks looking for them… They weren’t there! Does anyone reading know why they have gone? My fictional hypothesis is that driving along at a reasonably high speed on a busy freeway is perilous at the best of times; made only more so by an unexpected herd of unexpected near-mythical creatures suddenly popping up in your periphery! So perhaps that is why they are absent. Or maybe it was just to make me look totally delusional; which it did.

The biggest wow-moment of this section of the drive is the beach at Piedras Blancas, which for most months of the year has some sort of elephant seal activity occurring. We leapt out and joined the crowds cooing at the huge assortment of seals busily snoozing on the beach; with the odd swimmer, honker and waver thrown in. I had never seen an adult male elephant seal and holy moly, are they beasts! Think an actual elephant crossed with the thing out of 1990 classic “Tremors”.

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For the next few hours we sat back and enjoyed the seemingly endless long stretches of windy roads where you can see the 1 zig zagging over the hills way out in front of you. At certain points of the drive, clouds lurked in and hugged the road tightly, meaning we were always driving in and out of Silent Hill territory. Anish was cool as a cucumber in these conditions, which as a driver I would have found slightly un-nerving. The beauty of the 1 is that there are regular vista points, so you can regularly park up and stretch the pegs and take photographs of the stunning surrounding. At one of these stops I made friends with a pair of kissing chipmunks.

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We were all growing slightly weary, looking forward to exploring our cabin and magic hour light was beckoning the end of the day. As we drove into Big Sur, we passed one of those yellow warning signs featuring a Disney-esque prancing deer. I remember thinking to myself how nice it be to see an actual deer and not just sign after sign. Well, be careful what you wish for! As the next think I knew, we rounded a corner and directly in front of us was a ginormous deer… in the exact ‘prancing’ motion from the sign. We were extremely fortunate to just miss hitting it, if we had arrived there a split second earlier, I think it could have caused quite a nasty car accident. Ah well, the pesky deer just adds to the list of scorpions, snakes, giant lizards and spiders that have tried (and thankfully failed!) to do away with us on this trip.

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As twilight twinkled, we arrived at Carmel and followed some amazing instructions that included the word weiner, to find our new home. The “cabin” was less cabin, more luxury log mansion. It was so beautifully maintained and kitted out; feeling entirely rustic and authentic, but also very fancy indeed with every home comfort you could wish for. From the wooded cabin deck we drank beers and gazed out over the lapping waves and picturesque caverns on the beach below.

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Considering we had stuffed our faces with fish earlier, we opted for a dinner we could snaffle from bits at the tiny general store; nachos and the hugest tub of ice-cream I have ever seen. After our feast we sat around in the lounge chatting when suddenly we saw what looked like a torch beam flitting across the room. Hmm… weren’t we meant to be in the middle of nowhere? Nerves slightly rattled, we carried on nattering, only to then be interrupted by the scrabbling and scratching of something on the wooden walls! I think we were all slightly worried this was turning into a Cabin in the Woods scenario, but luckily the creepy lights and noises stopped in time for us to go to bed and have a peaceful nights slumbering.

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Nick Says: After one of the best night sleeps I’ve had on the trip (despite the mysterious lights and the scrabbling…) we woke up refreshed and ready to see Carmel in the morning light. After grabbing some coffees and pastries from the store just across the California 1, we went to explore some more of the cabin’s surrounds. We’d been off-handedly told about a beach they shared with the neighbours, but we didn’t quite realise it was going to be our own private beach complete with cove. It was incredible, and we felt very lucky indeed as we strolled down the path and supped our coffee while the waves rolled in.

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But then in the distance we noticed a park ranger approaching looking very serious. When he finally reached us, he stood on a rock and proceeded to tell us off for being on the beach, and that he would have to cite us for going down a path (from the other side I think) which had been shut. We then told him we were guests of the people who owned the property, which somewhat deflated the poor guy. I think he quite liked rushing into action, and seeing young(ish) looking people apparently trespassing must have made his day. Sorry officer for having a legitimate reason to enjoy the stunning beach while no-one else could. Haha.

The cabin and Carmel was absolutely the highlight of the road-trip for me, and I could have happily spent a very long time there indeed. I can understand totally why this is such a sought after part of the world. But for those who don’t meet people who own their own cabin in this neck of the woods, one of the more intriguing accommodation options we passed had to be Pigeon Point Hostel, where you can stay in a cabin attached to an old 19th century lighthouse! So cool.

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There was an amazing sense of peace in the cabin, and the closeness of the pine forest to the breathtaking coastline gave you a sense of wilderness and remoteness which would seem at odds with its central Californian location. Coupled with this is the whale spotting opportunities from the cabins deck, and I think Katie’s parents may have found they had a squatter if we hadn’t been heading somewhere equally as enticing – San Francisco! Anish had made his home there several years ago, and I couldn’t wait to get the local’s tour of the place. It’s one of the most hyped cities in the world, and would be a pretty epic coda for what had been an life-changing trip already. So with a sad wave of goodbye, we left Carmel and carried on down the California 1.